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Ambitious consumers want even fewer antibiotics from McDonald's

A food-conscious group pressures McDonald's to go further in its antibiotics ban, as some other chains are moving. But how much will antibiotics concerns mobilize Americans?

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McDonald's Director of Culinary Innovation and Registered Dietitian, Jessica Foust, prepares McDonald’s iconic Egg McMuffin sandwich using a fresh Grade A egg and real butter at a food event on Monday, Aug. 1, at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill.

Alex Garcia/McDonald's

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An advocacy group has urged McDonald's to expand its antibiotics-free pledge, pushing to see how far the fast food giant will go in its outreach to food-conscious consumers.

The group ShareAction has asked consumers to write to the chain's chief executive officer about extending its anti-antibiotics commitment, the BBC reported. McDonald's promised to cut preventative antibiotics from its chicken in 2015, but the advocacy group is pushing the limits of the chain's current wave of menu-origin awareness.

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"Excessive antibiotics use has global consequences, and is not bound by territorial borders or confined to poultry production alone," reads the sample letter on the group's website. "As a consumer, I want to feel confident that the food I purchase has been responsibly sourced, and isn’t contributing to this rising threat to public health: antimicrobial resistance."

The sample form letter ShareAction asks for a global extension to antibiotics-free pledge in all 30,000 of its global stores, citing concerns about the effect of preventative antibiotics on human health care and requesting a timeline for phasing them out. McDonald's warned of the logistical challenges from making such a drastic cut worldwide, but the group, which promotes investment in companies that cater to social interests, is still pushing, Reuters reported.

"We hope this action will encourage McDonald's to supersize their ambition," ShareAction chief executive Catherine Howarth said.

Consumer groups with similar goals are currently pressuring other fast food chains to change their policies on antibiotics. KFC received petitions about use of antibiotics in its chicken on Thursday, the BBC reported, and Wendy's told Reuters that antibiotics would be cut from its chicken in 2017, and a plan to do the same for other meats would follow.

Many of these chains have made major concessions to the cause of food-consciousness in recent years. McDonald's alone has substituted high fructose corn syrup and margarine for the more natural-sounding butter and sugar, and in 2015 announced it would convert its entire chicken egg supply to cage-free within the next decade. The chain has already promised to ban antibiotics-raised meat for US locations.

This is partly an effort to reboot the chain's image problem in the wake of documentaries such as "Supersize Me" and the preferences of more health food-conscious Millennials, but the group's focus on how changes to antibiotic use could help encourage potential McDonald's eaters may be a bit overblown, if recent studies are any indication.

Although most Americans have a basic understanding of how antibiotics work, 39 percent do not believe their drug-taking habits can affect other humans, Pew reported. Bringing animals into the mental calculus may be an even fuzzier proposition, as 41 percent of Americans have never even heard of antibiotic resistance.

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Another recent strategy by McDonald's – its popular all-day breakfast offering – has had more obvious success. The chain experienced its highest growth in years after Egg McMuffins joined the dinner menu, showing 35 percent profit growth for the first quarter of 2016. 

Increasing pressure from social groups may eventually reach the bottom line of the chain's goodwill. And the strategy will ultimately have to answer questions about how these complicated moves improve the slightly wobbly fortunes of the famously low-budget fast food industry.