Japan Data

“Wagyū” Branding Marks New Era for Premium-Grade Japanese Beef

Economy Lifestyle Food and Drink

The marbled, tender wagyū yielded by Japan’s coddled beef cattle has earned an international following of loyal gourmets. Japan’s beef industry faces a mounting challenge, however, from Australian growers, who have built a herd based on wagyū genetics and Japanese growing techniques. Japan’s government has responded by restricting domestic wagyū labeling to meat produced in Japan from specified breeds.

The Four Wagyū Breeds

Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries established guidelines in 2007 that restrict wagyū labeling to meat from four breeds of cattle and from crosses among those breeds. The four breeds, summarized below, are Japanese Black (Kuroge Washu), Japanese Brown (Akage Washu), Japanese Shorthorn (Nihon Tankaku Washu), and Japanese Polled (Mukaku Washu). In a related move, the ministry established a regulation that mandates domestic traceability as a condition for wagyū labeling.

Breed Prefecture(s) Characteristics
Japanese Black Nationwide Meat is extremely tender and extraordinarily rich in streaks of intramuscular white fat that account for marbled appearance; breed accounts for 95% of wagyū production.
Japanese Brown Kumamoto, Kōchi Good balance of marbling and red meat; breed includes well-known varieties Akaushi (Kumamoto) and Tosa Akaushi (Kōchi).
Japanese Shorthorn Iwate, Aomori, Hokkaidō Raised in northern Hokkaidō; well adapted to open-range grazing.
Japanese Polled Yamaguchi Herd remains extremely small despite breeding aimed at improving commercial appeal of meat.

Japanese Black

Japanese Shorthorn

Australian growers have succeeded in producing wagyū beef that is all but indistinguishable from the Japanese product. But the Japanese government regulations bar them from marketing their beef in Japan under that name. The regulations group even the most tender, highly marbled Australian offering with other imports as “foreign beef.”

A Marbling Focus in Quality Rankings

Japanese production of cut beef in fiscal 2014 totaled 352,000 tons, with wagyū accounting for 164,000 tons, or nearly half.

The Japan Meat Grading Association employs two sets of grading criteria: yield and quality. “Yield” refers to the percentage of each animal by weight that remains as “meat on the bone” after slaughtering and initial butchering. The association ranks yield on a scale from A to C, where “A” signifies the highest yield.

“Quality” refers to rankings in regard to four criteria: the marbling of the meat; the color and brightness of the meat; the firmness and texture of meat; and the color, luster, and quality of the fat. The JMGA ranks quality in reference to each criterion on a scale from 1 to 5, where “5” signifies the highest quality, and it compiles a composite ranking for each sample. In the composite ranking, the marbling receives a heavier weighting than the other three criteria, so a high percentage of red meat results in a lower quality ranking.

Some members of the beef industry bemoan what they regard as an excessive emphasis on marbling. They suggest that the grading criteria focus more on producers’ interests than on those of consumers. The factors of scent, flavor, and oral sensation are more influential in consumers’ perceptions of beef, they note, than the industry’s grading criteria. Some go so far as to argue that the preoccupation with marbling has resulted in less flavorful wagyū.

Some 300 Brands

Building trusted brands of premium cachet is a means of securing solid pricing in the marketplace. And wagyū producers in Japan are working assiduously to nurture strong regional brands. They have established autonomous standards for such criteria as breed, production locale, and meat quality. And they are undertaking diverse measures to upgrade their output and to foster demand.

Wagyū beef brands in Japan number some 300. The most famous is Kobe beef, produced from Tajima wagyū grown in Hyōgo Prefecture. Also well known is the beef produced from cattle raised in and named for the districts of Matsusaka, in Mie Prefecture; Ōmi in Shiga Prefecture; Yonezawa in Yamagata Prefecture; and Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture.

Export Promotion

Increasing agricultural exports is part of the Japanese government’s strategy for promoting economic growth. The government has set a target of ¥1 trillion for agricultural exports, including processed food products, in 2020. That would be an increase of about twofold from 2014. The government’s target for 2020 includes ¥25 billion in beef exports (4,000 tons). That would be a fivefold increase over Japan’s beef exports in 2012.

Japan suspended exports of beef after a 2001 outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, and after a 2010 outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease. Exports to the United States and Canada resumed, however, in 2012, and Japan’s beef producers have subsequently won access to the markets of the European Union, Hong Kong, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, Qatar, Singapore, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam. Russia opened its market to Japanese beef this year, though only to wagyū produced at two designated sites in Hyōgo Prefecture.

The Japan Livestock Industry Association adopted a unified logo in 2007 for Japanese wagyū beef. Japanese wagyū exporters use the logo to differentiate their product from the wagyū beef produced in other nations.

The unified logo adopted by the Japan Livestock Industry Association for Japanese wagyū

A committee established by the Japan Livestock Industry Association in 2013 is exploring measures for promoting exports of Japanese meat products. The measures under study center on initiatives for cultivating demand in the huge markets of the United States and the European Union. They also include initiatives, however, for securing the lifting of import restrictions in China and other growth markets.

(Originally written in Japanese by Nagasawa Takaaki of Nippon.com and published on October 15, 2015. Banner photo: The grand prize winner at the 2013 Matsusaka Beef Cattle Exhibition, which sold for ¥23 million at auction [November 24, 2013]. © Jiji.)

wagyū Japanese Black grading marbling branded beef cattle Matsusaka Kobe beef certification system Omi Yonezawa