The Midwest's leading chicken producer is lowering antibiotics use and making its barns less crowded, responding to consumer concerns about the industry.

GNP Co., the St. Cloud-based maker of the Gold'n Plump and Just Bare chicken brands, said Tuesday it will "never-ever" use antibiotics on its chickens — from egg to death — under the new "no antibiotics-ever" label.

The meat and poultry industry has flooded consumers with labels and claims about its products as a growing number of shoppers express concern about the sourcing and processing of meat, particularly the welfare and nutrition of food animals.

GNP said that it aims, within four years, for all of its Gold'n Plump's chicken sold in groceries to carry the "No Antibiotics-Ever" label and the American Humane Certified farm program seal, which is doled out by an independent third party. To gain this seal, GNP plans to spend $80 million to expand operations by adding barns to increase the space per bird by 10 percent. A barn of 50,000 chickens would drop to 45,000, for instance.

Already, all of Just Bare products and 25 of Gold'n Plump's most popular items carry the two labels and are on store shelves.

"We can really see why consumers are confused and rightly so," said Lexann Reischl, a GNP executive. "What makes us different is we are making a claim across both brands and in all products. That just makes it really simple."

This USDA-approved "no-antibiotics-ever" label specifically contrasts with the term "antibiotic-free," which has fallen out of favor in the industry for leading consumers to make inaccurate assumptions.

Randall Singer, a University of Minnesota professor of veterinary medicine and epidemiology, says the "antibiotic-free" label confused consumers who often believed it meant there was no antibiotic residue in the labeled meat while the non-labeled meat had residue. But, in fact, the federal government forbids the presence of antibiotic residue in all meat and poultry sold for human consumption.

"No antibiotics-ever is a cleaner label because it implies production," said Singer, who is also a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria.

The Food and Drug Administration requires all medicines be removed from an animal's diet for a period before slaughtering. This means all retail chicken is technically antibiotic-free, GNP's Reischl said, "so 'no antibiotics-ever' is actually a stronger claim. It's the strongest and best claim telling people that the chicken has never been treated in their entire life."

If birds get sick, GNP will administer drugs, if necessary, but not sell those treated chickens under the label.

Singer's primary concern with companies that transition to zero-antibiotic production is the well-being of the animal and the challenge of keeping that many birds healthy.

"I commend GNP and others that have linked the no antibiotics-ever with an animal welfare label that is certified because this is not easy to transition," he said.

The American Humane Certified label ensures the five freedoms of farm animals: freedom from hunger and thirst; pain, injury or disease; fear and distress; and freedom to express normal behaviors.

GNP, which is the nation's 19th-largest chicken producer, is not alone in trying to change growing conditions for birds.

Perdue Farms Inc., the nation's fourth-largest chicken producer, led this movement by shifting several years ago to reduce antibiotics use. Today, nearly half of its products qualify for the no antibiotics-ever label. The company has faced its fair share of bumps through the transition as it has trained its farmers on the process and had to navigate how to minimize bird sickness.

Last month, Perdue announced adoption of the five freedoms model for treatment of chickens, including changes to its facilities that allow more space and ­sunlight.

Singer said the poultry industry has been far more proactive than other sectors because chickens, which on average live just 48-49 days, are easier to keep alive without the assistance of antibiotics than larger meat-producing animals, like cattle.

Singer, who researches the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, said that minimizing the use of antibiotics in chickens will pay off by lowering the chance for such bacteria, sometimes called superbugs, to develop.

"Antibiotics are an incredibly valuable resource in health, but we need to make sure we are using antibiotics as responsibly as possible in all sectors," Singer said. "If an industry can begin to manage the health of their population without the need for antibiotics, that benefits everybody."

Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767