The World of "Wagyū": Aussie Challengers Closest to Perfecting Japanese-Style Beef

Economy Culture Lifestyle

The highly marbled meat yielded by Japan’s coddled beef cattle occupies a special place in Japanese cuisine. And the worldwide boom in Japanese dining is spawning a surge in demand for the tender beef. Wagyū (literally “Japanese cattle”) has entered the culinary lexicon in a growing number of nations. The expanding market for wagyū beef has prompted livestock growers in Australia to emulate the production methods of their Japanese counterparts.

Some of the livestock growers down under have achieved a marbling comparable to that of Japan-produced wagyū. That has enabled them to secure footholds in the Japanese market, as well as serving demand for wagyū beef in other markets. And the successful conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations would further open the Japanese market to imported wagyū beef.

Australian Wagyū Dominance Outside Japan

The wagyū beef cattle raised in Japan comprise four breeds: Japanese Black (Kuroge Washu), Japanese Brown (Akage Washu), Japanese Polled (Mukaku Washu), and Japanese Shorthorn (Nihon Tankaku Washu). All four are the result of crossbreeding since the nineteenth century between breeds long established in Japan and newly introduced breeds.

A Japanese Black of the Tajima variety—the source of Kobe beef—grazing in Hyōgo Prefecture

Japanese Black accounts for some 95% of Japan’s wagyū beef cattle, and it is therefore the breed that people ordinarily associate with wagyū. Japanese Black beef is extremely tender and is extraordinarily rich in the streaks of intramuscular white fat that account for the marbled appearance. All three of the most highly prized lines of wagyū beef are from Japanese Black cattle. Interestingly, all three bear the names of their production locales: Kobe (Hyōgo Prefecture), Matsuzaka (Mie Prefecture), and Ōmi (Shiga Prefecture).

Japanese exports of wagyū beef date from 1990, when affluent consumers in Southeast Asia acquired a taste for the meat. Southeast Asia’s nascent demand for Japanese wagyū dissipated, however, in the wake of Japan’s 2010 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and its 2011 nuclear plant disaster. Australian growers stepped in to fill the void, pitching their versions of wagyū beef in Southeast Asia. They captured nearly 100% of the demand for wagyū beef at high-end restaurants in Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, and other markets. The term wagyū thus ceased to refer exclusively to the Japanese product and came to refer to highly marbled, high-grade beef of any origin.

Uemura Kōichirō, a managing director at the Tokyo-based meat wholesaler Meat-Companion acknowledges the strides by the Australian cattle growers. “They’ve gotten awfully close to [Japan-raised] wagyū,” reports Uemura, “in regard to marbling.”

The Japanese Meat Grading Association’s Beef Carcass Grading Standard prescribes four criteria for evaluating wagyū beef:

  1. the marbling of the meat
  2. the color and brightness of the meat
  3. the firmness and texture of the meat
  4. the color, luster, and quality of the fat

Wagyū beef receives a grade of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) for each criterion, and the most important criterion in determining the quality of meat as wagyū is the marbling.

Meat-Companion’s Uemura expresses astonishment at the Australians’ progress in increasing the marbling in their beef. “If we index the marbling with the Japanese as the standard at 100, the Australian wagyū is about 50. That might sound like a big gap, but crossing the threshold of 50 signifies impressive progress.”

The Japanese government is implementing a package of measures adopted in 2013 to promote wagyū exports. Those measures include holding seminars and tasting sessions at venues around the world. They also include deploying an official logo to identify Japanese wagyū. But retaking market share from the Australians will be extremely difficult. Australian wagyū is about half as expensive as the Japanese product on account of lower production costs down under. Combined with the Australians’ ongoing progress in narrowing the quality gap, that places the Japanese growers at a huge disadvantage.

Two Pioneers in Globalizing Wagyū

Australian cattle growers began importing wagyū in 1989. US growers and universities had earlier imported some live wagyū cattle for the purpose of animal husbandry research, and the Australians secured their first wagyū in the form of bull semen and frozen embryos imported from the United States.

The destination for about 80% of semen and embryos in the first decade of Australian imports was a farm run by David Blackmore. A fifth-generation farmer, Blackmore has led the growth and development of Australia’s wagyū industry. He made the acquaintance of the Hokkaidō livestock grower Takeda Shōgo in 1992 and soon began importing wagyū semen and embryos from Takeda’s farm. Takeda also exported live wagyū to the United States in a series of shipments that continued until 1996. He and Blackmore concluded an exclusive export-import agreement for semen and embryos in 1994.

Takeda had embarked on the exportation of wagyū genetics with a sense of mission: He was determined to disseminate the delectable appeal of wagyū worldwide. But his fellow cattle growers in Japan were aghast at what they regarded as giving away their industry’s crown jewels. The Wagyū Registry Association admonished Takeda to cease his exports of wagyū genetics and expelled him in 1997 after he refused to comply.

Takeda’s exports of wagyū semen and embryos have elicited mixed appraisals. To be sure, they violated no law or regulation, however much they might have troubled Takeda’s Japanese counterparts. And Takeda has earned plaudits in some quarters as a pioneer in propagating Japanese culinary culture internationally. But he has also come under attack for selling precious intellectual property that could be regarded as a shared asset.

Blackmore first encountered wagyū during a 1988 visit to Texas A&M University’s research farm. The cattle captured his imagination, and he resolved to grow them in Australia. Blackmore began by cultivating “purebred” wagyū cattle—at least 93.5% pure—on account of the lack of 100%-pure, “fullblood” embryos. He later shifted his focus to fullblood wagyū as a sufficient supply of embryos became available. By the end of the 1990s, Blackmore was building a herd of fullblood wagyū.

Several Australian livestock growers began breeding wagyū in the late 1980s, and they established the Australian Wagyū Association in 1990 to advance their common interests. That association, like its Japanese counterpart, maintains rigorous quality standards for wagyū beef and provides diverse support aimed at promoting advances in wagyū breeding and husbandry. The Australian Wagyū Association reports that the number of wagyū in Australia has reached about 300,000—approximately one percent of the total number of cattle in the nation.

A Domestic Focus and Fuzzy Definition for US Wagyū

How US livestock growers allowed the Australians to lock up most of the world’s wagyū markets outside Japan warrants examination. The United States was the first nation to import live wagyū cattle from Japan. That was in 1976, when the University of Colorado obtained four wagyū bulls—two Japanese Black and two Japanese Brown.

US growers subsequently crossbred the imported cattle with local breeds. Repeated crossbreeding between fullblood wagyū and mixed-blood offspring raised the genetically wagyū concentration. And US growers ultimately attained the purebred concentration of at least 93.5%.

Continuing input from Japan fueled the US breeding effort for 22 years after the first imports of wagyū in 1976. During that span, Japanese growers exported 247 wagyū cattle and 13,000 frozen wagyū semen doses to the United States. The Japanese cut off the exports in 1999, however, in the aim of preserving their exclusive hold on the breeds.

Prompting the US imports was the notion of serving the Japanese market with US-produced wagyū beef. The US product proved uncompetitive, though, in the Japanese market. So the US wagyū producers abandoned their hope of gaining a foothold in Japan and turned their attention to the domestic market. They have since concentrated on promoting their beef as a high-value-added option for the American table.

The American Wagyū Association reports that US production of its namesake cattle and beef centers on the states of Texas, California, Oregon, Missouri, and Washington and that the United States’ aggregate wagyū herd comprises 3,000 to 5,000 fullblood cattle, 5,000 to 10,000 purebred cattle, and about 40,000 cattle of up to 93.4% wagyū blood. The latter consist mainly of wagyū-Angus crossbreeds, according to the association. US Department of Agriculture figures indicate that the US herd of all breeds totaled some 88 million cattle as of January 1, 2014. So the wagyū cattle—even as defined generously—account for considerably less than 0.1% of the total.

Angus—principally Black Angus—and Hereford—a red-and-white-haired breed—are the main sources of beef in the United States. The former has earned a reputation for tender meat that features an appealing balance of white fat marbling and red musculature. Wagyū has exerted a powerful, albeit niche, appeal in the US market with its tenderer-than-Angus succulence and its richer-than-Angus marbling. That appeal has meshed well with the mounting American interest in Japanese cuisine.

A troubling issue with the US wagyū market in the eyes of purists is its fuzzy definition of the meat. US restaurants commonly serve meat under the name of “wagyū” or “Kobe beef” that is from cattle of barely 50% wagyū blood. That sort of labeling—misleading at best—would be unthinkable in the better-established wagyū markets of Japan and Australia.

Chinese Wagyū

Chinese livestock growers are also casting their hats into the wagyū ring. Most prominently, China’s Snow Dragon Beef has captured attention with its eponymous wagyū offering. Japan’s wagyū growers mix rice straw with the cattle feed as a digestive aid. Snow Dragon Beef’s parent company, Dalian Xuelong Industry Group is Japan’s largest foreign supplier of rice straw, and the interchange with Japan’s beef industry engendered the idea of cultivating wagyū cattle in China.

Dalian Xuelong Industry Group (Xuelong translates literally as “snow dragon”) created the Snow Dragon breed by mating native Fuzhou Yellow cows with Australian black-haired wagyū bulls via imported semen. Its Snow Dragon Beef subsidiary presently tends a herd of about 30,000 cattle at sites in Dalian, Liaoning Province, and Yantai, Shandong Province. Snow Dragon Beef emulates the Japanese practice of spoiling cattle with immaculate quarters, piped-in music, massages, and a rich diet of corn and grain supplemented with, of course, rice straw. The bovines bask in the coddling for 22 months before encountering their fate.

The Dalian Xuelong Industry Group set up a joint venture in Dalian in 2005 with the Japanese trading house Kanematsu Corporation and the Japanese meat processor Kamichiku to strengthen its position in wagyū. The joint venture, Dalian Kanematsu Xuelong Food operates a meat-processing plant that incorporates Kamichiku’s expertise and conducts distribution and marketing that incorporate Kanematsu’s expertise.

“Slicing the meat reveals marbling that is truly impressive,” marvels Meat-Companion’s Uemura. “They’ve come up with beef that ranks at grade 4 [on our five-level grading for marbling]. This is a real challenge for Japan’s producers.”

China’s insatiable domestic demand will shield Japan’s wagyū producers for the time being from the challenge perceived by Uemura. Snow Dragon Beef and other Chinese producers have their hands full just trying to serve their home market. But Japan’s growers will face a real threat if and when the Chinese turn their attention to the Japanese market.

The Threat Posed by Red Meat

The emphasis on marbling among Japan’s wagyū producers has increased as the result of trade liberalization. In April 1991, Japan replaced its import quotas on beef with tariffs, which it pledged to lower in 10% increments, and began allowing domestic wholesalers and retailers to import beef directly from foreign producers. A government agency had held a monopoly on imports under the quota system, and it had maintained a high price floor for the imported beef stored in its lockers.

Japan’s trade liberalization meant that the volume of imported beef would increase and that retail prices would decline. Domestically produced beef of standard grades would become uncompetitive with lower-priced imports. Japan’s beef producers therefore staked their survival on high-end wagyū, where they could assert a competitive edge in quality. Beef that features marbling of grade 4 or higher now accounts for about 60% of Japanese production.

Marbled shoulder roast from cattle grown in Hyōgo Prefecture

No sooner had Japan’s beef producers staved off extinction by focusing on marbling than they encountered a new threat. A growing number of Japanese are developing a taste for unmarbled red meat. High-grade wagyū beef ordinarily appears on menus as part of a carefully conceived, well-balanced array of dishes. Restaurants are popping up nationwide, though, that offer simple meals centered unreservedly on red-meat steaks of up to 500 grams.

Typical of the new trend in beef consumption are the steaks on offer at the Ikinari! Sutēki chain of steakhouses. That chain, run by Tokyo-based Pepper Food Service, opened its first outlet in Tokyo’s Ginza district in December 2013 and had grown to encompass 50 outlets by July 2015. And its staple fare is red meat from grain-fed cattle raised in Australia and in the United States for the Japanese market.

“Restaurants ordinarily serve wagyū steak in 50- or 60-gram portions in the context of multicourse dining,” explains Meat-Companion’s Uemura. “The beef is a delicacy to be savored—not something that people just scarf down. Someone with an appetite for hefty servings is bound to prefer the leaner flavor and consistency of red meat.”

Wagyū also encounters a growing challenge from red meat in export markets. Affluent diners are the principal consumers of wagyū beef outside Japan. And those diners are increasingly prone to view wagyū’s rich marbling in terms of high fat content and to eschew the meat on that account.

Red meat thus poses a threat to wagyū on multiple fronts. A further shift in consumer preferences toward leaner beef could bode ill for wagyū’s market prospects in Japan and worldwide.

A Flavor-Focused Strategy for Reclaiming Wagyū for Japan

“The grading of wagyū presently relies mainly on visual criteria,” Uemura notes. “But consumers are interested in the flavor of the meat, not the appearance. So Japanese wagyū producers are working to come up with meat that consumers will regard as more delicious. That includes scientifically analyzing the meat’s viscosity, sweetness, and smoothness, all of which figure in perceptions of flavor. We also need to elucidate the mechanism by which a savory aroma arises when wagyū beef is cooked. Any progress in enhancing the meat’s appeal through those approaches would go a long way toward reinforcing wagyū’s market position.”

As Japan’s population shrinks, nurturing overseas demand is a pressing concern for the nation’s wagyū producers. Building a market presence for wagyū’s marbled beef in the red-meat bastions of North America and Europe will be a daunting task. But even those markets present substantial potential demand for wagyū beef. The long-term viability of Japan’s wagyū industry will hinge in large part on the producers’ success in tapping that demand.

Hyōgo Prefecture Governor Ido Toshizō (right) and representatives of EU meat wholesalers gather on July 8, 2014, to commemorate the first exports of Kobe beef to the European Union. ©Jiji)

“A lot of people around the world crave genuine [Japanese] wagyū,” emphasizes Uemura. “The potential market [for Japanese producers] is a lot bigger than just Japan. A global perspective is essential to the survivability of Japan’s wagyū industry. We’ll see a growing influx of American beef in Japan, but we can also have growth in overseas demand for Japanese beef. Cast your eyes on the global marketplace, and you soon see all sorts of unsatisfied demand. Agricultural produce is, in that sense, just like manufactured products.”

(Originally written in Japanese by Nagasawa Takaaki of Nippon.com and published on August 27, 2015. Banner photo:Miyazaki beefsteak. © Jiji.)

United States beef China Australia wagyū Japanese beef livestock industry