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

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.

  • [2015.09.28]
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