By Lisa Baertlein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Carolin Wood, an artist and graduate student from Brooklyn's trendy Greenpoint neighborhood, has a secret that she keeps from her husband and some foodie friends. Once a month, she takes her two young children to McDonald's for inexpensive breakfasts or ice cream.
"We call it our 'sneaky meal' because my husband thinks it's absolutely disgusting," said Wood, 35. "He doesn't want to know anything about it."
Even though Wood has fond memories of her own childhood visits to McDonald's, that doesn't mean she thinks the food is healthy. At home, she buys organic milk and meat as often as a tight family budget allows.
The fact that young mothers like Wood are teaching their children not to tell their dads that they've been to McDonald's may underscore how hard it may be for the world's largest restaurant chain to remake its image and revive U.S. sales. To lure back consumers, McDonald's Corp's new Chief Executive Steve Easterbrook recently pledged to eliminate chickens fed human antibiotics at its U.S. restaurants.
That won't make a difference for Wood, who said she's never eaten a Chicken McNugget and has no plans to try one, even after the antibiotic change.
McDonald's didn't comment for this story. The company doesn't break out what percentage of its customers are young adults and/or mothers.
"There is still a negative health connotation," said Morningstar restaurant analyst R.J. Hottovy. "It can be fixed, but it isn't an easy fix."
Hottovy said he expects McDonald's to eventually turn around its business, but not within the next couple years. McDonald's shares fell 30 cents to $96.55 on Thursday. The shares are down 1.8 percent from a year ago, compared with a 11.7 percent gain by the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 Index in the same period.
Sixty percent of American adults would like more restaurants to serve antibiotic-free meat, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos survey of 1,364 participants. Among parents with children under the age of 18, 40 percent said they would be more likely to take the kids to McDonald's if it had antibiotic-free chicken on the menu. The Reuters/Ipsos online poll was conducted between March 27 and 30, roughly two weeks after McDonald's announced its plan for antibiotics in chicken.
According to another poll by Morgan Stanley of 3,000 U.S. adults, the cohort known as Millennials, generally defined as being 18 to 34 years old, care more about all-natural and organic ingredients than older generations.
Millennials also are more likely than other groups to eat out on a weekly basis. And while they still eat more traditional fast food than other generations, they express more dissatisfaction with the category, according to the Morgan Stanley poll. That helps explain why chains like Chick-fil-A and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, which have committed to sourcing 100 percent antibiotic-free meats, have been taking a bite out of McDonald's sales. More than one-third of parents who answered the Reuters/Ipsos poll said they take their children to McDonald's at most a few times a year.
A series of critical documentaries over roughly the last decade, including "Super Size Me" in 2004, amplified consumer concerns about the health effect of eating fast food.
McDonald's has repeatedly tried to change that image. Among other things, it introduced salads to its menu and tweaked its Happy Meals for children by adding apple slices and cutting the french-fry portion by more than half.
Last year, McDonald's sought direct feedback from its U.S. diners with an online campaign called "Our food. Your questions." Frequent queries included "Is 'pink slime' in a Chicken McNugget?" and "Why doesn't your food rot?"
Food industry experts have said the move toward mostly antibiotic-free chicken will accelerate similar efforts by other fast-food chains and major supermarkets. It may also help curb the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs that contribute to thousands of U.S. deaths every year.
Samantha Trujillo, 33, a stay-at-home mother of four from Yuma, Arizona, said McDonald's vow to wean chickens off most antibiotics makes her feel a little bit better about the chain and its food.
"I probably would eat the chicken a little more often," said Trujillo, who takes her kids out every month or two to get Happy Meals and visit the air-conditioned play area for a respite from Arizona's sweltering heat.
Asked whether McDonald's antibiotic move could move the needle for the company that saw 2014 revenue, profit and traffic fall, Mark Kalinowski, restaurant analyst for Janney Capital Markets, said: "My best guess is that it'll help only a little bit at most."
People who care about antibiotic-free meats want them to be completely antibiotic free, Kalinowski said. "If you're going to do it, do it. Don't be half pregnant."
Amanda Libby, 46, a mom from Danvers, Massachusetts, agreed.
She used to take her two sons for Happy Meals fairly regularly during baseball season, something she now regrets after seeing films like 2011's "Forks Over Knives," which says that many common diseases can be prevented by avoiding processed foods. She now only occasionally allows her boys to eat McDonald's hamburgers, and would like the chain to use 100 percent antibiotic-free meats before making more frequent trips.
"Mostly (antibiotic-free) won't cut it for me," said Libby.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles, editing by John Pickering)