Rethinking Meat: An Interview with Ariane Daguin

Marisa Tsai

Ariane Daguin is the founder, owner, and CEO of D’Artagnan, a purveyor of gourmet meats based in New Jersey. Since its founding in 1985, D’Artagnan has been a leader in the food industry by making sustainable, humanely raised meats accessible to the American market. Daguin, who is originally from the southwest of France, is dedicated to producing food raised with respect, from organic chicken and foie gras to grass-fed beef and smoked bacon.

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Ariane Daguin about her journey in creating an alternative to industrial farming, the factors that set her products apart, and the process behind foie gras and the Green Circle chicken.

Food Tank (FT): How do your cultural upbringing and family history in food production influence D’Artagnan’s practices?

Ariana Daguin (AD): It influenced it tremendously. I was not born on a farm, I was born in a very rural part of France, Gascony, where there is no factory farming—there are no huge farms. It is in a temperate part of France and because of that ideal climate, there were many small farms that specialized in ducks, geese, and other waterfowl, with an emphasis on foie gras. It is very much a polyculture region with a huge respect for the quality of ingredients.

In my family, we can trace back seven generations before me that has been in the food and hospitality business—you know, inns, auberges. Basically, I was born into a family and culture of total respect for the client. And a part of that is trying to serve them best ingredients possible. I used to follow my father and grandmother to the small regional markets of the villages, where they had true, deep relationships with farmers who would grow specific products for them. So when I came to this country, I was totally flabbergasted by the lack of this. It was almost 40 years ago, I started D’Artagnan 30 years ago. I couldn't find any good meat, especially poultry. The chicken was inedible to me—it was “Ah, how can something like this exist”—to me, it was impossible.

Even though I spent a brief time at Barnard College, I really didn't have a sense of marketing at the time. All I knew was that there were chefs here who needed access to good meats and poultry, and they certainly didn't have access to that then. We were extremely lucky because it was at the time when young chefs were coming out of newly formed professional culinary schools. Those young chefs were traveling to Europe and came back with a respect for ingredients that wasn't there before. Chefs like Jean-Louis Palladin, who came from France, and said high and loud, “Hey I need good ingredients, where are the good ingredients, I need farmers to grow good ingredients for me.” D’Artagnan started in that favorable atmosphere.

Without any conscious marketing, it was easy to use experiences from my region and try to convince American farmers to do it the same way. In the beginning, it was very difficult for farmers to understand, since after World War II there was only one motto: Let’s grow as fast as possible and as cheaply as possible. We had to go back to the basics and say, no, we don't want that breed of duck that grows in five and a half weeks. We demanded older, heritage breeds that take 10–11 weeks to mature into adulthood. Same thing with chickens. No, we don't want chickens that are 38 days old and never saw the light of day, we want chickens that grow for several months and mature slowly and go and pick at insects outside and have space to build a real texture to their meat.

FT: What sets your products apart from other meat products?

AD: An example is that we found somebody in North Carolina who was doing quail, but they were doing quail only frozen and in a very automatized manner. We asked them to have them fresh, we asked them to change the diet, and we asked them to grow them longer for us with a natural diet, without antibiotics and without medication.

On the chicken, right away, I wanted some that could last more than the commercial breed. The commercial breed, you cannot grow them much more after 50 days. They are so genetically manipulated that they barely go to two months old, they are not made to survive much longer. So we started to put some heritage breeds in the mix, we started to, again, ask the farmers to use no medication at all. If you have to medicate the animals, please take them out of our program and put them wherever else you want to but not to us. Please have at least five square feet per chicken on the outside and at least two square feet inside. And only use well water with no chlorine. And then we started to ask—that was the second step—slaughterhouses to air chill instead of water chill the birds. That took a while because we needed some volume in order to convince people that they could do that for us.

On the organic chicken, I believe we were the first ones to have an organic chicken. In the beginning, we couldn't label it because the USDA, for 10 years, didn't have a definition for organic.

Of course, we also have foie gras, and on the meat side, we started with venison and elk. Little by little, we grew, and now we have a huge group of farmers who do Angus beef. They are pasture-raised and finished with grain right in the prairie.

FT: What does D’Artagnan look for in their producers and how do you verify compliance to your standards?

AD: First, we look for producers that are close to the slaughterhouse, and then talk with them. In the beginning, it was hard to convince conventional farmers to change their ways. Now, it's much easier since we have a good track record working with other groups of farmers.

The slaughterhouses are our weakest link. Small slaughterhouses are dying every day, and huge ones are becoming huger. That’s a concerning fact in our industry, because the bigger the slaughterhouse, the less prone they are to accepting animals that require a slightly different methodology than their cookie cutter animals. And that's a problem. So we are trying different ways, with the Farm Bureau and agriculture departments of different universities. We are trying to convince them to set up slaughterhouses where there are enough regional farmers that can make that slaughterhouse viable even though the cost per animal will always be much more than one of those humongous 100,000-chickens-per-hour operations.

Regarding verification, there are three ways of doing it. The first one is us: we visit each site between three to four times per year. The second way is the USDA. One way or another, they need to certify that our animals are antibiotic free, free range, or organic for the label. It’s imperfect, but it’s there. The third way is through our third-party certifications. We try to have the Certified Humane label as much as possible.

But, generally, once a farmer is in the group, they like participating. Economically speaking, we are more viable than any commodity market. In a commodity market structure, you might raise cattle for two years and have to kill it for less than the price it took to raise it. Whereas for us, that would never be the case. We look at it in a very transparent way with the farmers and account for all the costs of raising an animal. So, they are assured that we will pay the right price. The only variable is the price of grain if farmers import it. It’s a fair system that works and a win-win for everybody.

FT: Tell us about your efforts and any challenges you faced in bringing your humanely raised, sustainable meat to a wider audience.

AD: For a long time, our only clients were chefs. They were the only people who understood the value of what we were bringing. Little by little, consumers who experienced the restaurant food started to ask for the same quality in stores. That’s how we entered into little stores. Today, 60 percent of our business is still to restaurants; the rest is to little stores, and 5 percent is through our direct-to-consumer website which is growing really fast.

Selling in little stores is challenging because of the higher price. But it is also an opportunity because our business model doesn't work if we only sell certain parts of the poultry. For example, when people buy only boneless, skinless chicken breast and not the legs, skin, and bones, we cannot justify the price of the whole chicken. Same with ducks. We cannot just sell duck breasts, so we developed duck confit, rillettes, and paté. We have to be creative in selling all parts of the animals. That's where the little stores help a lot because they are better at selling ready-to-eat products.

Today our biggest challenge is developing and maintaining small slaughterhouses and creating products that use the whole animal. Also, times change. During the big economic crisis in 2008, all the restaurants changed their orders to cheaper cuts. They still wanted the same, humanely raised animal but only wanted lower cuts. We had to learn how to adapt to that.

FT: D’Artagnan began as a purveyor of foie gras and continues to be a major provider despite controversy over the product. Can you talk about why the foie gras you sell is different than most other foie gras?

AD: This is actually not the right question. We don't have a good farm and everyone else has the bad farm. Producing foie gras is just like producing chicken and pork. You have good farmers and bad farmers. To me, bad farmers are those that try to raise too high of quantities without respecting the animal. The same principle applies to foie gras. If you limit your quantity to an amount that allows you to respect the animal and give it space, there is no problem with foie gras.

In order to produce foie gras, you first must raise your duck in a normal way for 9–11 weeks. During this time, you have the ducks run outside from food to water all day. After this, they are put inside in parks of four to five ducks. Then, three times per day, a feeder with pump and tube comes and force feeds the ducks a mash of corn into the esophagus. The esophagus of birds is insensitive and they have no gag reflex. When people anthropomorphize and say, “oh, it must hurt to put that in their throat,” number one, it's not a throat, and number two, they are not human beings, they are ducks. When mother birds feed the baby birds, they put their beaks down the esophagus of the baby birds to the stomach, so it's the same principle.

The ducks are frazzled in the first couple of days because they aren't used to having a human so close—they regard the human as a predator. After these couple of days, man is no longer an enemy; he is someone who brings you food. Also, after this initial period, the duck is starting to go into a migratory mode. Ducks and geese force feed themselves before migration, so they have enough calories for the very long flight. So as the ducks grow, their liver and organs start to enter into a migratory mode. There is nothing inhumane, we are just mimicking their migratory mode. This is not a sickness, it is a normal propensity for waterfowls to force feed themselves and store calories in certain places in their body. One of them is the liver, and the other is the skin.

Once you know the principle, it's easy to see who the good farmers are. The good farmers are the ones who don't keep animals in individual cages but keep them in parks that are spacious, with plenty of straw and water, that let the animals outside to exercise in their first weeks of their life. You can differentiate between those farmers and those who practice factory farming.

By the way, it's easy to figure it out, because the foie gras from factory farms is bad. It doesn't taste good. There is not secret—if you treat an animal right, if they have a wholesome life with diverse food and ways to walk around in their natural habitat they will give you good meat. If you mistreat animals, the meat is not going to be good. It’s true for all animals: ducks, pigs, beef, lamb, and chicken, in particular.

FT:  Can you share with us what inspired the Green Circle chicken? Do you see D’Artagnan introducing other similar products?

AD: The Green Circle chicken is an effort to reproduce the chickens I tasted when I was young, that my grandma was raising with my cousins. Basically, my grandma would take scraps from the hotel restaurant and would bring it to the farm where they would feed the vegetables to the chicken. We would give the other stuff to the pig because there was one huge pig usually that would eat everything, we were so frightened of it. But the vegetables went to chicken, and those chickens had an incredible taste.

I wanted to have the same experience, and I talked to seven chefs in New York City and I told them about this. I wanted to try to put this system in place where I would deliver the chickens twice a week, and in exchange, they would sort out their scraps in specific buckets give the same driver the vegetables. That’s how we started the Green Circle program.

After a while, it became really cumbersome because, first of all, the buckets had to be filled in a timely manner in the restaurant. We had put a list in English and in Spanish for the kitchen so they would not put any citrus in it or stuff that chickens don’t like. Then, we would need to disinfect the buckets in between each trip. We would need to bring the buckets back here to the warehouse. Then, we would have to put those buckets into the truck that brought us the chickens from the slaughterhouse. At the slaughterhouse, the buckets would have to go in the truck that brought the live chickens to the slaughterhouse. After, those trucks would go back to the farm. It was fun, but it was...every little piece of the leg of the trip, if something went wrong, boom, the whole thing went wrong. It became really cumbersome.

We have a dozen farmers in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, and there are a couple of really big Amish outdoor markets. We made deals with those markets. Now, instead of schlepping back the vegetable scraps from the restaurants, we get vegetables directly from the market at the end of the day. Those are ugly vegetables that people didn't want because they were ugly—they had a bruise, they were overripe or underripe, or had the wrong color. Now, it's much easier. We get vegetables every day from the farmers and feed them to the chickens. Because of that system, we are able to grow. We started with two farmers; we are now up to 12 farmers. Today, we are at 15,000 [Green Circle chickens] per week.

[Regarding other products] we are working on something.