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McDonald’s Is Testing Preservative-Free Chicken McNuggets

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The fast food giant hopes to roll out the new recipe in time for the Summer Olympics

McDonald's is testing a "cleaner" version of its Chicken McNuggets in approximately 140 stores in Washington state and Portland, Ore., reports Crain's. The Chicago business site broke news of the fast food giant's hopes to expand the new nugget recipe nationwide in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

According to Crain's, "the new recipe contains ingredients McDonald's says are more recognizable to consumers, such as lemon juice solids and rice starch," though the chain declined to provide its new ingredients list. There are currently 34 ingredients in the company's chicken McNuggets, many of which appear to be corn derivatives rather than preservatives:

Ingredients: White Boneless Chicken, Water, Food Starch-Modified, Salt, Seasoning (Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Salt, Wheat Starch, Natural Flavoring [Botanical Source], Safflower Oil, Dextrose, Citric Acid), Sodium Phosphates, Natural Flavor (Botanical Source). Battered and Breaded with: Water, Enriched Flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Yellow Corn Flour, Bleached Wheat Flour, Food Starch-Modified, Salt, Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate, Calcium Lactate), Spices, Wheat Starch, Dextrose, Corn Starch.

A man who answered the phone at a Portland-area McDonald's confirmed the store was selling the preservative-free nuggets. When asked about the ingredients, he said the nuggets had "no additional preservatives, just chicken and the breading" and therefore had a shorter shelf life. An employee at a different McDonald's in Portland said the nuggets tasted "exactly the same" as the previous incarnation, just without "artificial preservatives." One worker who answered the phone at a Seattle-area restaurant said she "knew the company was working on" adding the preservative-free nuggets, but wasn't sure when they would be available at her store.

Last year, the company announced a commitment to stop using "human" antibiotics in the chicken served in its American restaurants, following in the footsteps of Perdue, Chick-fil-A, and Chipotle. KFC has faced pressure to curb its antibiotic use as well.

The integration of preservative- and antibiotic-free chicken comes amid a massive turnaround plan spearheaded by CEO Steve Easterbrook. Growth has been stunted at the chain in recent years — some of which was likely the result of changing eating habits among millennials, who are turning away from fast food in favor of fast-casual dining options. In addition to cleaner ingredients, McDonald's attempts to win back customers include a new value menu, the introduction of all-day breakfast, and a simplification of its core menu (i.e. displaying only the top-selling drive-through items on outside menu boards). The breakfast menu has helped boost sales in recent months.

In an earnings call with investors last week, Easterbrook said the brand continues to look at ways to innovate to "reflect customers' changing demands," through the implementation of table service and self-ordering kiosks.

Update: 4/28/16 12:20 p.m. In an email, McDonald's spokesperson Beca Harry confirmed that the chain is testing the nuggets, but did not mention which specific ingredients were removed in the new recipe. Below is the company's statement, in full.

Starting in early March, approximately 140 McDonald's restaurants in Oregon and Southwest Washington started testing a new Chicken McNuggets recipe to gain valuable feedback from our customers. These new Chicken McNuggets are made with a simpler recipe that parents can feel good about while keeping the same great taste they know and love. The classic menu item is still made with 100% white meat chicken, no artificial flavors or colors and our signature seasonings and crispy breading. The Chicken McNuggets we are testing in Portland have no artificial preservatives. More than ever, customers care about where their food comes from and how it is prepared.

We are always testing menu items and listening to our customers and their preferences to help drive future innovations. Last year, McDonald's announced a new antibiotics policy in the U.S. to only source chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine.

Customers in Portland have responded favorably and we'll continue to learn from this test to inform future decisions.

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