My American foodie friend (lets call him AFF) was indignant that he was mislead by the waiter into ordering ‘Wagyu’ (“It’s from Japan”) after he specifically asked about the source, knowing that in the USA, nearly all ‘wagyu beef’ is from America or Australia.
AFF ranted, “American wagyu is NOT beef from Japan! It’s either Japanese cattle that have been crossbred with (local) cattle breeds or (rarely) Japanese cattle that have been brought over and raised locally. Like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese etc, the wine made from those grapes taste different and reflect the character of the terroir and winemaking style of California, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, wherever; beef from Japanese cattle raised in America tastes different from Japan-raised Japanese cattle.”
“There is nothing wrong with American beef. In fact, I prefer US Prime to Japanese A5 for steaks but I was told these shabu shabu plates were Japanese beef from Japan…and of course, they were priced up to $23 more per plate compared to their US Angus beef plates. If I knew it was American wagyu – I did specifically ask to confirm and was told, “Yes: from Japan” – I would have just ordered the Angus beef. “
“Would you feel cheated if you were told the pinot noir wine is from Burgundy when it was in fact from pinot noir grapes grown in Paso Robles and made there? The point is, the beef from American wagyu is from America and not Japan. The taste, texture and price was far from what I was expecting, after being told by the server the beef is from Japan. I later confirmed with another server – it’s American wagyu from America. For anyone who has ever had quality Japanese beef, it is a world of difference; I’m not saying one is always better than the other, but they are different!” – AFF continued.
A Very Good Place to Start – JAPAN
Lets start at the very beginning in Japan. The most common export brand is “Kobe Beef” that according to Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association rules is from the Tajima strain of Wagyu cattle, raised in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. The meat is a delicacy renowned for its flavour, tenderness, and well-marbled fatty texture (shimofuri). There are three top brands known as ‘Sandai Wagyu’ – Kobe beef, Matsusaka beef and Ōmi or Yonezawa beef. Of course, since ‘wa-gyu’ means “Our Beef” they almost never use the generic term in Japan; they use specific beef strain and location for identification. “Our” actually has the meaning of “Japanese Cultural” rather than a possessive adjective.
According to the Japan Meat Grading Association, true Kobe beef can only come from purebred Tajima cattle born and raised in Hyogo that achieve a ranking of A4 or A5 on a 5-point scale. Anything of a lower grade is labelled Tajima beef. Restaurants that serve real Kobe beef are certified and display a small bronze Tajima cow statue as the association’s official seal of authenticity.
Urban myths regale with tales of the lavish lifestyle of the cattle. The pampering these cows with beer, karaoke singing and body massages is famous in populist storytelling. Real cattle farmers would never dream of making their cows drunk. They attribute the beef quality to love for the highly sensitive creatures, proper care and feeding with the right blend of grains and grass. Nature takes care of the rest.
Genetics and Regulation
Wagyu were originally work animals used in agriculture, and selected for their stamina. This selection favoured animals with more intra-muscular fat cells – ‘marbling’ – as their energy source. Wagyu is a horned breed and the cattle are either black or red in colour. The three major black strains – Tajima, Fujiyoshi (Shimane) and Kedaka (Tottori) comprise 90% of the Japanese national herd with the remainder of the red strains Kochi and Kumamoto.
During the Meiji Restoration period (late 19th century) to encourage ‘westernisation’ of diet, native Japanese cattle were interbred with European breeds (Brown Swiss, Devon, Shorthorn, Simmental, Ayrshire, and Korean) This foreign DNA infusion was stopped in 1910.
In 1943, cattle originally recognised as “Kobe beef” were from herds in the Kobe area and could be any of four breeds of Wagyu cattle: Akaushi (Japanese Red/Brown), Kuroushi (Japanese Black), Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn. Tajima is a strain of the Japanese Black, the most populous breed (90% of the four breeds). Tajima rose to international stardom because Kobe Beef is mostly Tajima. To combat the confusion, the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association was formed in 1983 and they created th strict A1 – A5 grading system with A5 being the best-of-the-best.
Another key factor towards Kobe beef quality is the feed — a carefully chosen organic mixture of grass, rice straw, soybeans, wheat, barley and corn (without any growth hormones or antibiotics). The best farmers hone their changing blend depending on the season, the age of the animals, and their condition.
The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries – MAFF has produced a short video on Wagyu beef.
The most common available beef types outside Japan are Kobe, Kagoshima and Matsuzaka; there is also a sprinkling of Hidas and Kumamoto. When I lived in Japan, we could find many varieties such as Saga, Yonezawa, Mishima and Akaushi but the herds are small and their beef rarely exported. Depending on the texture, colour and most importantly theamount of fat marbling, high grade Japanese beef is scored between A4 to A5, with A5 being the best. B and C grades are used for general cooking and stews.
Wagyu breeds are also reared in Austalia, Canada and the USA. These cattle are from the diluted bloodline of Japanese cattle and are fed using the ‘local equivalent’ feed, but are considered to be not as good as the their Japan bred cousins. The proof is in their cheaper price. Following the economics of supply and demand, quot erat demonstratum!
The Japanese Government banned the export of Wagyu and declared them a national living treasure. In 1976 however, four bulls were exported to the United States and the diluted Wagyu genetics “appeared’ from the American cow herd and filtered to Canada, Australia and the rest of the world. USA “wagyu” was banned in 2003 in Japan and other countries because of B.S.E. (bovine spongioform encephalitis), which is as bad as it sounds! “Trust me – I’m a doctor.”
Foreign wagyu is still a premium meat but not the same as Japanese wagyu. Foreign bred Wagyu is graded at between M4 to M12 so if you can assume it is foreign if you are given a M-score. Usually, a USA restaurant will list Wagyu on their menu without stating the grade, which probably is about M4-5; be ready to be disappointed. It needs a M10-12 to be anywhere close to a Japanese A5.
AMERICAN KOBE-STYLE BEEF
This is a cross between Wagyu and Black Angus, bred specially for the North American market. This beef has not connection with Japanese Kobe Beef except for the word ‘Kobe’. It exists to cater for the Americans taste for rare steak. The Angus characteristics were incorporated to make the more “meaty” even when cooked rare and bodes the question, “Why not just order an nicely aged Angus steak?”
JMGA (Japanese Meat Grading Association)
In 2008, Japan increased the grading standard such that the BMS (Beef Marble Score) range is between 3 and 12 (removing BMS 1 and 2). BMS 3 requires a minimum IMF (Intra Muscular Fat) of 21.4%. The USDA grading system is maxed out at BMS 3 with the Prime+ grade. That means the USDA cannot cope with real wagyu levels of IMF above 35%.
The meat quality scores are determined in terms of beef marbling, meat colour and brightness, firmness and texture of meat, colour, lustre and quality of fat.
recently, the Japanese have developed objective carcass measurement with digital camera technology and image analysis software (Beef Analyzer II) to calculate:
•Rib Eye Area
•Rib Eye Shape
•Fineness/ Coarseness Index – Marbling
This technology is currently in use in the USA (3 cameras) and Australia (1 camera) only as a research tool to collate accurate carcass data for possible use correlating genetic analysis (BLUP). This technology was recently presented at the annual Wagyu Conference in Coeur d’ Alene by Prof. Keigo Kuchida from Obihiro University. Yes! They study wagyu at Japanese universities.
REAL KOBE BEEF IN USA
Prior to 2012, Kobe beef was not exported. The first exports were to Macau in January 2012, then to Hong Kong in July 2012. Since then, exports have made it to the United States, Singapore, Thailand and Canada. In 2016, the distribution of Kobe beef was increased greatly. There are now about a dozen restaurants in the USA and a few European distributors.
DUBIOUS GREY AREAS
Now, is the winter of our discontent made glorious evil by restaurants of ill repute. Their menus list “Japanese beef”, “Japanese Wagyu”, “Domestic Wagyu”, or simply “Wagyu” without qualification. They present varying degrees of duplicity.
If no beef was allowed into the USA because of the ‘tariff wars’ or health reasons, how can they be “from Japan”?
Next, is the vericity of pure blood wagyu being imported and bred exclusively pure in USA or Australia; it is more likely that diluted blood stock has intentionally been bred to cater for local tastes and reduce costs. In the UK, ASDA supermarket (owned by Wal-Mart) introduced Wagyu beef under its ‘Butcher’s Selection’ range using meat from Yorkshire, “bred from Holstein dairy cows impregnated with Wagyu semen” (I kid you NOT). This made the beef more affordable but it was less marbled meat that was more familiar to UK consumers. In 2014, the German discount store ALDI announced Wagyu beef steaks “with every store receiving a limited number of 50 steaks, priced at a very competitive £6.99 for an 8-oz (225-g) sirloin and rib eye”. ALDI’s Wagyu beef came from New Zealand, where grass-fed cattle are allowed to roam and unlike Japanese cattle that are “confined in small pens and given much more energy-dense feed”.
Japanese wagyu portions are small for a reason; it is too fatty to be consumed in bulk. I have felt physically ill after a particularly indulgent and expense-account “Kobe Beef” meal.
I’m sure there are some conscientious and excellent USA farmers raising pure Japanese breed cattle, fed on superb feed to produce excellent beef but there is no cerification or USDA labelling to denote this. Therefore, “domestic Wagyu” is still in the realm of caveat emptor, unless you have certainty about provenance in the supply chain. The American Wagyu Association has made good progress in this respect but they have no legal power for compliance.
In Japan, every restaurant and shop selling Kobe beef displays a 10-digit ID number and usually a scannable QR code that matches the particular animal from which the beef was sourced. All Japanese beef is ultimately traceable and accompanied by certificates documenting lineage, birthdate, slaughter date, and weight. For real imported Kobe beef, you would need to read Japanese to know if you are getting the real deal. Regular beef also carry certificates of their own in the Japanese bureaucratic system.
The Kobe Beef Council uses a flower as their seal of authenticity but you are unlikely to see this on a sliced of steak at your table.
WHERE’S THE BEEF?
Japanese wagyu beef revolves around the dispersion of marbling unlike any other meat. While “marbling” is important to all beef assessors and is the main basis for USDA grading (Select / Choice / Prime), Americans are more concerned with the amount of fat while Japanese focus on its dispersed distribution. Kobe beef is more speckled and without thick “walls of fat”. Kobe beef fat is composed of more unsaturated fatty acids, which melt at much lower temperature than saturated fat. Japanese inspectors check if the fat melts on their hands; tasty oleic acid melts just above 18°C (Human body temperature is 38°C). That accounts for the buttery ‘mouth-feel’ of Kobe beef.
I think my buddy AFF summed it up when he said:”For anyone who has ever had quality Japanese beef, it is a world of difference; I’m not saying one is always better than the other, but they are different!”
Author’s Biography: Melvyn Teillol-Foo (MTF)
Dr Melvyn Teillol-Foo is a contributor on AlphaLuxe web-zine.
He is also a moderator on PuristSPro.com horology discussion fora. He blends his scientific medical objectivity from the pharmaceutical industry with purist passion, in his musings about watches, travel, wine, food and other epicurean delights.
His travelogue ‘Lazing’ and feasting ‘Grazing’ series of articles have now passed into “mythic legend” on the original ‘ThePuristS.com’ website. Those were the halcyon days when he was “rich and famous” that he remembers with bittersweet fondness.
Dr Teillol-Foo is a quoted enthusiast on the watch industry, appearing in feature articles and interviews by Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Sunday Times (London), Chronos (Japan), Citizen Hedonist (France) and other publications. He has authored articles for magazines like International Watch (iW) – both U.S. & Chinese editions, ICON (Singapore), August Man (Singapore), Comfort (China) and The Watch (Hong Kong).