McDonald's, in a bid to woo health-focused diners, will remove some artificial preservatives

McDonald's is accelerating plans to simplify its food and announced intentions Monday to remove artificial preservatives from its chicken nuggets, breakfast sausage patties and egg products. The fast food giant will also remove high-fructose corn syrup from its buns by the end of this month.

Mike Andres, president of U.S. operations, announced the changes at the burger chain's Oak Brook headquarters. He said the changes are part of an ongoing effort by McDonald's to cater to more health-focused customers who demand fresh, wholesome food.

The removal of artificial preservatives from chicken nuggets is an especially important move for those destined for Happy Meals, Andres said, and marks a step forward for parents who are conscious of additives in their children's food. McDonald's had already taken out artificial colors and flavors.

On the breakfast menu, artificial preservatives in pork sausage patties and pre-scrambled eggs will also come out. Pre-scrambled eggs come on hotcake platters and other breakfast dishes that vary by region. Breakfast sandwiches are made with whole eggs that are cracked in restaurants, without any added ingredients.

McDonald's has seen big growth in breakfast since launching the meal service all day last fall.

For customers ordering lunch and dinner, McDonald's said it will roll out burger buns with sucrose instead of high fructose corn syrup later this month. And all of its chicken is now free of antibiotics, a milestone the company originally promised would be complete in early 2017. Farmers still use ionophores, a class of antibiotics that are not prescribed to people, to help keep chickens healthy.

"We are creating a different food culture at McDonald's," Andres said.

The company has made a number of changes and commitments over the last 18 months in an effort to win back customers who are shifting toward healthier options.

Those include switching from margarine to butter on its breakfast sandwiches and sourcing milk from cows not treated with growth hormones.

McDonald's said its food initiatives and commitments have resonated with customers, both through more repeat visits and by bringing some lapsed customers back in the door. Sales at restaurants open at least 13 months in the U.S. rose 1.8 percent last quarter, dragged down by an industrywide slowdown. That's far slower than the company has reported in the last several quarters.

The most significant change was the plan to use only cage-free eggs by 2025, a move that spent years in the planning stages. But because McDonald's is such a huge buyer of eggs, the shift cleared the way for more companies to follow. More than 100 companies made similar announcements after McDonald's announced its plan, Andres said.

Marion Gross, head of supply chain at McDonald's, said making big changes with beef as it has with chicken and eggs will be more challenging. McDonald's manages all of its chicken supply chain, with suppliers Tyson and Keystone Foods. But the beef that McDonald's purchases comes from a large number of cattle ranchers, which makes changes in policy and procedure much more complicated.

Still, she said, the company is trying to make its food better and more sustainable across the board.

"We're looking at every aspect of our menu today. Nothing's out of bounds," she said.

Steven Roach, food safety program director of Food Animal Concerns Trust, a Chicago-based nonprofit that advocates for better farming practices, said, "By transitioning its U.S. chicken supply to reduced antibiotics, McDonald's shows that this goal is attainable and has moved the chicken industry as whole toward less use of medically important antibiotics."

Roach said he hopes that McDonald's will soon extend the policy globally and make similar commitments for other meats it serves.

"With McDonald's moving from a public commitment into actual implementation, we are entering a new phase in the move away from routine antibiotic use," Roach said, noting other big chicken buyers, like KFC, have yet to make similar promises. Other fast-food companies like Subway, Taco Bell and Wendy's, have made varying commitments to either use no or fewer antibiotics.

sbomkamp@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @SamWillTravel

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
78°