WHAT IS WAGYU BEEF?
Wagyu pronunciation is wa-gyoo in English and represented by the two Japanese Kanji characters 和牛
Wa 和 – means 'old Japan' and gyu 牛 - means cow
Wagyu simply means a type of cattle raised in Japan with the direct translation ‘Japanese Cow.’There are four distinct fullblood breeds of cattle native to Japan that make of Japanese Wagyu:
- Japanese Black
- Japanese Brown (also called Japanese Red)
- Japanese Polled
- Japanese Shorthorn
Wagyu can come from any one of these Japanese cattle breeds with Japanese Black making up almost 90% of total Japanese Wagyu.
Japanese Brown (Red) is the second most common breed with Japanese Shorthorn making up just 1% of Japanese Wagyu. These breeds were traditionally used as working cattle and chosen for their strength and endurance.
They are all horned breeds and surprisingly, are naturally medium-sized cattle breeds with a unique natural genetic predisposition to storing fat throughout their muscle fibers which they used as their primary energy source as working cattle.
It is this natural predisposition for storing intramuscular fat that makes Wagyu Beef cattle so unique and sadly so exploited. Let's take a look at the good and the bad sides to Wagyu Beef.
THE PROBLEM WITH WAGYU BEEF FROM JAPAN.
The conditions forced upon the beef cattle in Japan in return for high Wagyu beef prices and profits leave a lot to be desired.
Cattle are ruminant animals meaning they are grass / plant roughage eaters with a unique digestive system comprising of one stomach with four compartments designed by mother nature to break down the plant roughage.
Ruminants also roam in their natural habitat which is outdoors on pasture. As Japanese purebred Wagyu beef breeds have a natural pre-disposition to fat marbling throughout the red meat muscle, Japanese ‘farmers’ have learned to artificially boost the marbling and Wagyu grades by the following highly unnatural and bizarre methods:
- Feeding wagyu calves a highly unnatural daily diet of supplement-infused powdered milk with and powdered processed proteins.
- Feeding the Wagyu cattle, a range of high carbohydrates / high-fat foodstuffs such as white rice, grains, bread, beans, and olive peel. Even dark chocolate is used. Such an unnatural diet may lead to the elusive A5 marble score but will cause bloat, liver damage, and chronic cramping in the animal.
- Artificially increasing appetite by forcing the wagyu cattle to drink beer or even sake (Japanese rice wine) in summer months to boost calories and appetite i.e the munchies so the beef cattle eat even more.
- Keeping the wagyu beef cattle in fattening feedlots almost exclusively indoors to reduce movement and minimize exercise ensures further fattening of the wagyu cattle but damaging joints and hooves.
- Music. As strange as this sounds, music is played to the animals in their fattening feedlots. This is primarily an attempt to reduce stress in the wagyu cattle. Stress produces cortisol and cortisol reduces marbling / meat grades which correlates to lower prices and profits at auction.
The TruBeef position on rearing Wagyu beef cattle methods in Japan is it's highly unnatural with little to no care for the animal’s welfare or natural disposition for a pure pasture-based diet.
Wagyu breeds have a wonderful genetic ability to store fat and there are some forward-thinking Wagyu farmers in Britian and Australia who allow their beef cattle to live completely natural lives on pasture and eating a diet of grass yet still achieve wonderful tasting beef with great marbling.
It is now possible to find Wagyu beef that is verified and certified Grass-fed along with a recognized animal welfare standard.
MODERN JAPANESE WAGYU, A BRIEF HISTORY
Despite being considered ‘fullblood’ or ‘purebred’, the four Wagyu cattle breeds of today are a result of the crossing of native Japanese cattle with the imported breeds Brown Swiss, Devon, Shorthorn, Simmental, Ayrshire, and Korean cattle between 1868 and 1910.
This cross-breeding gave these grass-eating working herds better health, endurance, longevity of life, more genetic vigor and made for a stronger working animal.
Due to the Japanese Buddhist belief that humans could be reincarnated as animals and the Shinto belief that dead animals left the body with impurities, for many centuries, the eating of meat from four-legged animals including Wagyu beef cattle was illegal with the Japanese population eating fish as its main source of protein.
It was only due to food shortages and near-famine conditions in post-war Japan and the introduction of beef to school children by the American occupying forces who introduced a school program that the specific breeding of Wagyu Beef for food came into popularity.
Fast forward to the 1970s, a booming, more globalized Japanese economy was consuming more and more wagyu which pushed domestic prices ever higher. Due to high domestic demand and a very high wagyu beef price in a roaring Japanese economy, the Japanese Government recognized the unique attributes and value of Japanese Wagyu to its rural economy, banned its export until 2012, and declared Japanese Wagyu and National treasure.
Wagyu is graded by yield and meat quality. “A” is the highest yield grade, or how much beef is obtained from the cattle; “5” is the highest quality grade, and means the beef has the best marbling, color, texture, and quality of fat.
Wagyu is also graded on the Beef Model Score or BMS which is rated from 3-12.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WAGYU BEEF AND KOBE BEEF
Many people confuse the two. Put simply, Kobe beef is Wagyu cattle that is specifically born, raised, and slaughtered in the Hyogo prefecture, of which Kobe is the capital and largest city.
Kobe beef must meet specific breeding and grading guidelines of A4 to A5 only before it can finally be given a Kobe Beef certificate which in turn allows this type of wagyu beef price to reach astronomical figures.
Due to interference in Wagyu pricing and Wagyu cattle counterfeit certificates, the government of Kobe has gone to great lengths to prove authenticity by maintaining an online database of where its Kobe beef is sold around the world.
Another more recent form of Wagyu is Olive Wagyu from the Japanese island called Shodoshima where their Wagyu breeds are fed a bizarre mixture of Olive oil by-products and grains which is used to fatten the animals.
WAGYU BEEF CERTIFICATES AND COUNTERFEITING FOR PROFIT
When you buy Kobe or Wagyu beef or have ordered A5 level 12, Wagyu at a gourmet restaurant, this would be considered the highest possible Wagyu grade and be extremely expensive.
Wagyu exported from Japan is accompanied by a certificate showing the DNA testing results, family tree, farm the cattle was raised, place of slaughter.
Unfortunately, due to the high prices and profits, the lack of experience of some western consumers and the high marbling of American Wagyu, in particular, the use of fake Wagyu / Kobe and counterfeit certificates by some Wagyu beef supplier is not uncommon. Similar to the problem of fake Grass-fed beef in the US, fake Wagyu is a big problem.
Since only one certificate is issued per cow, it is nigh on impossible for the typical western consumer to know if their $300 A5 Wagyu steak price paid is worth it and the claimed wagyu beef is even from Japan from where the certificate claims.
WAGYU BEEF GOES GLOBAL. ALL THAT MARBLES IS NO LONGER JAPANESE
In the booming 1970s to early 1990s, purebred Wagyu cattle and embryos were being shipped to America, Australia, and Britain. This led to an explosion in the Wagyu beef price globally.
Purebred Wagyu crossbreeding with other cattle in America, Australia, and Britain took off with the introduction of the Wagyu and Australian Angus crossbreed called ‘Wangus’ and
Wagyu and Aberdeen cross in Britain and American Wagyu in America.
Today, Australian Wagyu and American Wagyu make up the vast majority of global wagyu consumption and indeed are the biggest competitors to Japanese raised wagyu cattle although gourmet wagyu steak purists in Japan would turn their nose at the difference in marbling of these cross breeds compared to the Japanese purebred.
BETTER WAGYU FEEDING AND CONDITIONS.
While some questionable Japanese style cattle feeding practices have been adopted, it is encouraging to note, some wagyu beef suppliers in Britain and Australia, in particular, have recognized and respect that Wagyu cattle are ruminant animals and treat them as such.
These Beef suppliers have successfully begun to allow their wagyu pure and cross breeds to live and feed naturally on grass as they once did on open pastures and on an exclusive grass-fed diet yielding great flavor and surprisingly good marbling
MORE TRANSPARENT WAGYU PRICING.
In a further step away from price gouging, to safeguard the authenticity and consumer transparency of pricing, the Australian Wagyu Association formulated a table of Wagyu Trade Description so their consumers could clearly see the percentage (%) of Wagyu content of the beef the consumer was actually buying for their money.
The trade description is clearly displayed on consumer facing labels in these countries. This table has also been adopted by the British Wagyu Breeders Association
LEVEL OF WAGYU CONTENT
Wagyu Fullblood 100%
No crossbreeding. Parents fullblood wagyu from Japan
Wagyu Purebred F4 93+%
Greater than 93% wagyu genetic content. 4 generations of crossbreeding with a fullblood wagyu sire
Crossbred Wagyu F3 87+%
Greater than 87% wagyu genetic content. At least 4 generations of crossbreeding with a fullblood wagyu sire
Crossbred Wagyu F2 75+%
Greater than 75% wagyu genetic content. At least 2 generations of crossbreeding with a fullblood wagyu sire
Crossbred Wagyu F1 50+%
Greater than 50% wagyu genetic content. 1st generation crossbreeding with a fullblood wagyu sire
WHAT MAKES WAGYU SO UNIQUE?
A purebred Japanese Black, Brown, Shorthorn or Japanese Polled breed has a natural genetic makeup whereby it’s fat is stored internally within its muscles giving a high marbling throughout versus mostly on the outside of the muscle as a fat cap on other beef cattle breeds and what you would see on a typical New York Strip side fat cap for example.
Due to the high level of natural marbling, the meat texture is extremely fine making for a very soft buttery mouthfeel when eating.
The high fat marbling to meat ratio also gives the wagyu beef a very low melting point which is in fat lower than the human body temperature requiring only quick sear or indeed eaten raw.
In a typical wagyu steak, the mono-unsaturated to saturated fat ratio is higher in Wagyu than in other beef and, the saturated fat in wagyu contains the heart-friendly stearic acid making for an altogether unique chemical makeup and fatty acid-rich content.
Again, the trade-off to all of this is the extreme methods used in which this ultra-high fat marbling is achieved.
WAGYU STEAK PRICE. A DARK UNDERBELLY AND A CASH COW, LITERALLY!
Wagyu beef breeds genetic fat storage throughout muscles is achievable with a natural grass-fed pasture-based diet and life, however, this intra muscular fat storage is then harnessed by ‘farmers‘ and artificially accelerated using an extreme high-calorie unnatural diet to create extreme fat marbling throughout the red meat muscle tissue.
It is this attribute that gives Japanese Wagyu steak its unique and world-renowned marbling and extremely high wagyu beef price which can fetch more than $300 per steak for olive Wagyu.The Wagyu beef cattle themselves can be sold at auction for the price of a luxury car and go for an average price of $30,000.
The highest recorded Wagyu cattle beef price at auction in Japan was a whopping 50 million yen, or roughly $400,000 in 2002 for a cow from Matsuzaka in Mie Prefecture.
Compare this Wagyu beef price to the typical beef cattle price in America and the Australian beef cattle price of $1,500 per head or the price of $3,000 per head of Black Angus Cattle in Texas.
It is of no surprise that these ultra-high profits have long been an attraction to Japan’s largest organized crime group, the Yakuza in illegal whale meat dealing, counterfeit Wagyu certificates, the raising, dealing, illegal export, and auction price-fixing of Wagyu beef in Japan.
Due to the extremely high A5 wagyu beef price, it has also been used as a tool by organized crime gangs such as the Kobe based Yamaguchi-gumi gang to launder money on a grand scale over several decades.
RECAP OF WAGYU BEEF
- Wagyu Beef cattle have a natural predisposition to fat storage in their muscles. Man takes advantage of this.
- Highly unnatural practices are employed to fatten wagyu beef cattle in Japan.
- Force-feeding of alien food stuffs such as beer, red wine, and sake used.
- Lack of proper and natural free-roaming exercise.
- Poor animal welfare standards.
- Decades-long ties to the Yakuza on wagyu beef farms, at auctions, abattoirs, and distribution.
- Counterfeit wagyu and counterfeit certificates throughout the world to mislead consumers.
- Community of forward-thinking wagyu beef farmers do exist and are practicing natural farming methods where Wagyu breed cattle eat grass and live on pasture.
- Australian and British grass-based wagyu farms have demonstrated that grass-fed Wagyu cattle can yield high marbling naturally without using extreme rearing methods / or poor animal welfare standards.