It’s not revolutionary to state, in the simplest terms: Factory farming is a plague on our society. It’s all about profits and accessibility over quality and humanity. And yet… year after year we vote for this system with our wallets. Every dollar we spend sends a message to businesses, and the current message seems to be, “as long as you’re cheaper, we’re fine with it.”
Ariane Daguin believes that a vote for sustainable and cruelty-free meat should be easy to cast. And she wants to persuade you to take her side. It was with this aim that Daguin founded D’Artagnan back in 1985. At the time, she was working part-time for a New York pâté producer when she noticed that no one wanted to represent duck farmers who were producing high-quality foie gras in America.
Daugin took matters into her own hands and started distributing all the parts of the duck to restaurants. That quickly led to expansion into organic poultry, before there was even a designation at the USDA for ‘organic.’
The overarching goal for D’Artagnan was simple: Recreate the high-quality of life for livestock from Daguin’s childhood in France that, in turn, leads to the best quality product for restaurants and consumers. Her guidelines are straight-forward, “Never, ever administer growth hormones or antibiotics; feed animals a clean, natural, and appropriate diet of grasses and grains; allow animals their natural behaviors and space to roam.” It’s not rocket science, but it’s crucial to the wellbeing of our food system.
We sat down with Daguin to talk about what it is exactly that sets her products apart from the factory farmed animal proteins that have flooded American grocery stores. It’s a deep dive into why you need to stop buying factory farmed chicken right now, and how to transition to locally sourced and cruelty-free sources of animal protein.
Can you tell us a little bit about the history of D’Artagnan?
We started 32 years ago. There was a farmer who started the first duck foie gras farm in America. He had a hard time finding somebody to actually commercialize the foie gras and the rest of the duck. For a very long time I wanted to start my company, so that was the little spark that made us start D’Artagnan.
Where did you get started?
We started here in New Jersey to cover the New England, you know, from Boston down to Washington, DC. Now we have warehouses in Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta.
Let’s talk about the farming. How important is good feed and what is the best feed for chickens?
We get all the poultry for the East Coast in Pennsylvania where we have partnered with Amish farmers. They use their own feed and that is grain. It is complemented sometimes when there’s a very bad harvest, but that is rare. The feed is nothing different than that in an all natural diet with pure spring water for drinking. That’s it.
The Amish? Why?
We like partnering with Amish. They have this philosophy in life that this land and this livestock was given to them and their responsibility in life is to pass it on to the next generation in as good of shape or better than what was given to them. We like that because it means that they’re going to respect the earth and they’re going to respect the animals that they’re raising.
What’s special about Amish chickens?
The first step is the feed has to be natural feed. The second is the breed has to be a breed that has not been manipulated too much.
Why is that?
Factory farm chickens live up to 50 days. The heritage chickens are more like 85, sometimes 100-days old.
An Amish farm sounds kind of idyllic, I’m guessing there’s a lot of room to roam?
They have to have room to roam around. That’s really the key to a good quality chicken: a sturdy breed that’s going to last a long time, room to roam around to build the muscle, and wholesome feed. Those are the three things.
Can you walk us through the process of how the chicken gets from the farm to the supermarket — or to the restaurant for that matter?
The Amish, by religion, do not use any cars or phones. After some coordination, we pick up the live chickens at night from the farm and go to the slaughterhouse, which is an hour and a half away. We have around 18 farmers now in Pennsylvania, so it’s an everyday routine.
How long do the chickens spend in the slaughterhouse?
The whole chickens are for the same day. Our truck picks it up from the processing place, which is just shy of two hours from our warehouse here in Union, New Jersey. Every chicken that we sell to the supermarket has been processed in 24 hours or less. The restaurants will reorder every day. For the supermarket, at that point, we lose control. It’s up to the consumers to look at the sell-by date and to be careful. That’s it.
Would you mind talking about air chilling a bit and how D’Artagnan uses that and the majority of other chicken producers don’t?
Basically, in this case with poultry, you have to, one, kill them. Two, you need to bring down the temperature as fast as possible after you kill them. There are two ways to bring down the temperature. One method is by soaking them in iced water. One method is by putting them in a very highly ventilated refrigerator that has a high, cold wind inside. Some say there are pros and cons to both. We feel there are only pros to the air chilling.
What are the “pros” to air chilling?
The first pro is that the chickens are not going to cross-contaminate each other because they are not going to touch each other. So if ever one chicken was carrying salmonella, it wouldn’t pass on to other chickens because it’s not sharing the same bloody bath, basically.
The second and very important feature of air chilling is that it doesn’t add any water to the skin. So the skin stays very nice and crisp and it makes the taste very concentrated.
Third, at the end of the process, the chicken is actually a little lighter than when it started. On the conventional water bath processing — which is what everybody does in the US — you actually dip the chicken in a huge bath of bloody water and ice cubes. You have to add chlorine to it to contain and to prevent cross-contamination. But the factory also enjoys a weight gain because you’re allowed to keep those chickens in there until they gain up to 15 percent of their weight. So, when you buy a chicken in America — and it doesn’t say “air-chilled” on the label — you actually are buying 15% water. That’s 15 cents of every dollar spent on dirty water.
That’s … ridiculous.
Yeah. You can see it right away. When you put this chicken in a pan, it just pisses water, you know. All the flavor dilutes and goes out with it. It’s a good test: when something does that in your pan, that means it was water-processed.
Say I read this and say: I don’t ever want to eat another water bath chicken! Do you have plans to expand nation-wide so I don’t have to?
We are not bound by the limitations of the sales; we are bound by the limitations of the sourcing. On beef, lamb, pork, and buffalo we are pretty okay because those red meats have a shelf life that’s a little longer. So once we have found our niche and our nest of ranchers, then we find the processing place nearby and we keep with them and as we grow.
On the poultry, it’s very different. For the poultry, whether it’s chicken, duck, quail, and then game birds, we need to absolutely be close to the market. So right now, for example, we are looking at expanding and adding a warehouse in Denver, Colorado. The first thing is not to find the actual warehouse in Denver, the first thing is not to actually find the clients in Denver, the first thing is to find the group of farmers and the processing plant, or slaughterhouse, near Denver. That’s what we’re working on right now. The farmer has to live up to our standards first.
Can you talk about specifically which labels on chicken we should be looking for?
Educating the consumer is bigger today than ever. Today you have chickens that are labeled ‘organic’ by the USDA and those chickens don’t even go outside … ever. They have access to the outside, but that doesn’t mean they go outside. They just have a small door to the outside. There is not even a fence outside. It’s like pretend, you know? So, you have certified organic chickens that are actually coming from a factory farm. 15,000 chicks in a coop, one little door, no chickens outside ever, and organic feed that is certified “organic” by a Chinese third party and imported from China. Is the organic grain really organic? Who knows.
So, it’s difficult. The labels and the labeling law in the US makes it very difficult to differentiate on the label alone. You have to really rely on the reputation of the brand.
I think ultimately, one of the big differentials is small farms. Were those chickens really raised on a small farm where the farmers actually cared for them or were they raised in a factory farm?
I’m from Seattle for instance, and we don’t have your brand out in Seattle, yet. What would you recommend I do so that I can get chicken that is high quality and not soaked in disgusting bloody chlorine water?
To help me out, it would be nice to buy chicken online at D’Artagnan. We ship it by FedEx Next Day in a box that is insulated with a recycled jean material. We don’t use styrofoam or things that are not biodegradable. We put enough blue ice in it to last for 24 hours. We have a system now where we can ship it directly from Chicago to anywhere in America.
But, to your question, when you go to your supermarket, make sure that it says “air-chilled” on the label. That’s the main thing. Otherwise, there are a lot of farmers’ markets and there are a lot of small farmers who have a direct line to consumers — especially on the west coast.
I would recommend to first identify the farmer, to talk with the farmer, and to understand where they process their chickens. Find out if, indeed, they are processed in an air-chilled facility and not water-chilled. Then, just ask basic questions like, did you give any antibiotics to your chickens? What were they fed? Like that. Building a relationship with the farmer is the best place to start.