- Wagyu beef from Japan is the most prized beef in the world.
- High-grade wagyu can cost up to $US200 per pound. The rarest steak in the world, olive wagyu, can cost anywhere from $US120 to over $US300 for a steak.
- Wagyu calves can be 40 times the price of US cattle. The adult cows can sell for as much as $US30,000.
- In 2013, Japan exported 5 billion yen worth of wagyu. Last year, exports hit 24.7 billion yen.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: This is wagyu beef, one of the most expensive meats in the world. Produced in Japan and prized for its rich marbling and buttery taste, high-grade wagyu can cost up to $US200 per pound, and the cows themselves can sell for as much as $US30,000. But what is it that makes the meat so expensive?
The term wagyu literally translates to Japanese cow. And it generally refers to four main breeds. These cows were bred for physical endurance, giving them more intramuscular fat cells. The fat is distributed more evenly throughout their muscle, which is why wagyu beef looks pink and tastes so tender. And the Japanese government tightly regulates wagyu production to protect the value and quality of the meat.
Wagyu is graded on two main factors: how much meat can be yielded and the quality of the marbled fat. Only A3 to A5 wagyu is certified for sale in Japan. And the higher the grade, the higher the price. Wagyu beef has gained almost legendary status, and there are many myths about wagyu farms and the way the animals are treated, from getting daily massages to being fed beer. But these often aren’t true.
The cows are raised very differently in each region and by different farmers, but they’re often raised by a breeder until they’re about 10 months old and then sold at auction to a fattening farmer. By the time the calves are sold at auction, they can already fetch 40 times the price of US cattle. The fattening farm will keep the animals in small pens and feed them a mixture of fibre and high-energy concentrate made from rice, wheat, and hay. They’re often fed this three times a day for almost two years, until the animals are almost 50% fat. Only the pregnant cows and breeding cattle are allowed to graze on pasture.
The length of the fattening process and the import prices of the huge amount of concentrated feed increases the cost of the beef, and over this fattening period, each cow will eat 5 tons of feed. If and when a cow goes to auction, it can sell for as much as $US30,000.
Comparatively, black Angus cattle, which are considered the cream of the crop in countries like the United States and Australia, typically don’t sell for more than $US3,000. And depending on the kind, the wagyu can fetch close to $US200 per pound.
High marbling is the common goal, but the approach varies by farm and area. While there are more than 300 varieties of wagyu available, the most notable cuts come from 10 regions. One of the most expensive cuts is Matsusaka wagyu from Mie Prefecture, made exclusively from virgin female cows and highly prized for its tenderness. In 2002, one Matsusaka cow sold for 50 million yen, or roughly $US400,000. However, the best-known cut of wagyu is Kobe beef, which comes from the city of Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture and is made exclusively from steers, or castrated bulls.
Although Kobe is commonly seen on US restaurant menus, customers should be wary of items like Kobe burgers, as authentic Kobe beef is too tender to be formed into a patty. Several US restaurants are actually serving hybrid “wangus” beef from domestically raised wagyu and Angus cows.
The highest-ranking wagyu is A5 Miyazaki, a two-time winner of the “Wagyu Olympics.” A5 Miyazaki will cost you $US100 or more per pound. At SakaMai in New York City, it’s the wagyu of choice. The restaurant is best known for serving it in an $US85 katsu sando, a popular Japanese-style sandwich.
Ken: On a busy night, we probably serve about 25 of them at $US85 a pop. Because wagyu is so difficult to find in the US, yes, we do have a number of customers coming to us just to try the wagyu. Sometimes a two-top will come and just order the sando by itself. There are a lot of tariffs and quotas on Japanese beef imports, and it’s actually not allowed to import live cattle. So it is very difficult to source wagyu.
Narrator: So, is it worth it? We decided to have our team give A5 Miyazaki wagyu a try.
Jack: Holy s—. It’s so good. It’s really, like, it’s, like, buttery. It’s, like, as if it was, like, coated in butter, but it wasn’t.
Irene: Right? But it wasn’t. It was literally just salt and pepper, which is crazy.
Narrator: And there might be something even more sought-after than the A5 Miyazaki. Hailed as the rarest steak in the world, olive wagyu comes from cattle raised on pressed, dried olive peels mixed into their feed. It was developed in 2006 by a Japanese cattle farmer named Masaki Ishii. Only about 2,200 of these cows were slaughtered in 2018. And they all live on the island of Shodoshima, home to Japan’s oldest olive oil plantation.
This special wagyu is said to be extra tender and can cost anywhere from $US120 to over $US300 for a steak. While wagyu’s popularity grows worldwide, the domestic picture is a little different. Wagyu’s popularity in Japan is actually slumping slightly, and the country imported more US beef than any other country as of 2017.
The value of Japanese exports of wagyu has risen over 200% in the past five years. And as Japan’s population ages, farmers are struggling to keep up with the increased global demand, raising prices even more. But the high cost hasn’t discouraged international sales.
In 2013, Japan exported 5 billion yen worth of wagyu. Last year, exports hit 24.7 billion yen. And many producers are now getting halal certifications for their slaughterhouses so they can export to Muslim countries. However, Japan may eventually have some competition when it comes to producing high-quality wagyu. Countries like the US, Australia, and the UK have been working on breeding their own wagyu, usually relying on crossbreeding. Most British, American, and Australian wagyu are only 50% purebred, but that may be changing soon.
In the UK, for example, the Wagyu Breeders Association now registers DNA-verified full-blood wagyu bulls and certifies authentic “British wagyu.” New methods and increased regulation may result in a product as good as the original, which means that there soon could be a lot more wagyu that costs a lot less.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in August 2019.
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