Wagyu beef from Japan is one of the most expensive meats in the world.
If you’ve tasted authentic Wagyu, you’ll probably understand why it’s so sought-after.
Apparently, the meat has a unique buttery taste and is so tender that it literally melts in your mouth.
However, at a price of up to $200 per pound for high-grade Wagyu, there must be more compelling reasons this beef is so pricey than merely taste.
Some of the reasons you may have heard are that the Wagyu cattle receive massages every day or that they’re fed beer.
However, apart from a few isolated farmers who apparently do treat their cattle in this royal fashion, such rumors function more as myth than fact.
Here are some of the real reasons Wagyu is so super expensive.
Why Is Wagyu Beef So Expensive?
1. Japan’s Geography
Mountains, some of which are volcanic, occupy more than 80% of Japan’s landscape.
A considerable percentage of Japan consists of long, narrow valleys tucked in between tree-covered mountains.
Human habitation and agriculture are mostly present in strips along the edges of these valleys.
In addition, Japan is smaller than the state of California.
This means that there simply is not a lot of land available for the cattle industry.
A typical feedlot in Japan may contain anything from 10 to 100 cattle, which is considerably smaller than feedlots in the United States, where you’ll find thousands of animals.
Cattle ranches are also much smaller in Japan than in the U.S.
The smaller sizes of feedlots and ranches in Japan allow farmers to carefully monitor and care for their cattle.
It also means that Wagyu beef is not that readily available compared to standard cattle raised and farmed in the U.S. or elsewhere, which contributes to its priciness.
2. Feeding Time
Wagyu cattle are fed for twice as long as regular cattle, which means these animals are more expensive to rear.
Whereas regular cattle are fed for approximately 18 months, Wagyu cattle typically feed for around three years.
This is because it takes around 28 to 36 months for Wagyu cattle to develop that intense marbling in their muscles.
Although the longer feeding time requires a significant increase in resources, it is necessary in order for these animals to mature and their meat to become fully marbled.
3. Low-Stress Environment
Any Wagyu farmer will tell you that one of the most important practices in Wagyu farming is to provide a low-stress environment for their cattle.
The reason for this is that when an animal experiences stress or is subjected to high-intensity activities, it raises the level of adrenaline and cortisol in the animal’s body.
These chemical changes cause a deterioration in the quality of the beef, which translates into a tougher and less flavorful steak on your plate.
In order to keep their cattle stress-free and prevent them from potentially being frightened, Wagyu farmers control the noise level that their animals are exposed to.
They also separate cows that don’t get along and check the animals every few hours to ensure that they are doing well.
Farmers also ensure that their cattle have a constant supply of fresh and clean water and also sometimes brush the animals with a stiff brush to increase blood circulation and relieve stress.
These stones are believed to have healing properties, including purification of the surrounding air and water.
Apart from feeding on the farm’s grass field, Poroshiri Wagyu cattle only drink water that has been purified by Bakuhanseki stones.
4. Expensive Labor
In general, labor in Japan is expensive, which obviously influences labor costs for Wagyu cattle farming.
Costly labor in Japan is partly due to the labor shortage that the country is experiencing, which, in turn, is the result of two main causes.
The first is that Japan has a shrinking population because of low fertility rates, which is currently rated at 1.368 births per woman.
Secondly, the postwar generation, which is the biggest population group in Japan, is reaching retirement age, and needs to be replaced with a new labor force.
In addition, cattle farming and the agricultural industry at large are not popular choices when it comes to career options for young Japanese adults.
All of these factors make it challenging to find specialized labor in the Wagyu industry.
5. Japan’s Security And Traceability System
The Wagyu tradition and reputation are based on hundreds of years of meticulous cattle rearing, which is why strict measures have been implemented to safeguard the authenticity of Wagyu farming practices.
To protect the Wagyu industry as well as consumers against fraudulent suppliers of so-called Wagyu beef, the Japanese National Livestock Breeding Center has developed a security and traceability system.
When a Wagyu calf is born, its nose print is taken, and it also receives a 10-digit code that serves as the animal’s identification number.
This unique ID number is entered into a database, together with comprehensive data regarding the animal, including its date of birth, breed, parents, grandparents, and feedlot.
You can also look up the processing plant, distributor, exporter, and importer.
This whole process obviously increases the price you end up paying for your Wagyu steak in a restaurant.
6. Importing Costs
Although some farmers outside of Japan have been able to source Wagyu DNA, most of these farmers have chosen to crossbreed Wagyu with domestic breeds.
There are multiple reasons for doing so, including that crossbreeding increases the vitality of a herd and prevents disease.
Additionally, it also provides increased feed efficiency, which drives down rearing costs and ensures a cheaper end product.
Between 1976 and 1997, 183 Wagyu cattle were imported into the United States
In 1997, however, Japan decided to dub Wagyu a national treasure and to prohibit the export of Wagyu cattle to any country, including the U.S.
By the time the ban was imposed, farmers had already starting crossbreeding Wagyu cattle with domestic breeds.
For instance, the crossbreeding of Wagyu cattle with the Angus breed has resulted in what’s called Wangus cattle in the U.S.
Although there are some ranchers in the U.S. who claim to breed authentic full-blooded Wagyu, there are no strict testing or regulations in the U.S. to verify this claim.
In Japan, strict measures are maintained to ensure that only animals with superior genes are used for breeding, whereas no such measures exist in the U.S.
Even if these farmers are producing Wagyu that’s purebred and of a superior bloodline, their numbers are negligible compared to those farming with traditional cattle.
This means that the beef supplied from these small operations is much more expensive than regular beef.
Because of the lack of regulation regarding Wagyu beef in the U.S., the meat is being imported from Japan for discerning customers.
Currently, there’s an import quota of 200,000 kilograms (about 441,000 pounds) on Japanese beef for the entire U.S.
After that quota has been filled, an import tax of 26.4% applies to imported Japanese beef, which significantly affects end-user prices.
7. Superior Genetics
Even if you subject other breeds to exactly the same treatment as Wagyu, you will not get the same quality of meat.
This is because of genetics.
Many centuries ago, Wagyu cattle were mainly used as draft animals for rice farming.
These animals had a heavy workload and also received little feed, which, over time, led to an evolutionary adaptation in their bodies that allowed them to store the extra energy as intramuscular fat.
This mutation provided Wagyu cattle with the ability to draw on their intramuscular fat for added energy when they needed it, such as when pulling heavy loads.
It is also this mutation that’s responsible for Wagyu beef’s characteristic marbling and tenderness.
Another added benefit of intramuscular fat is that it’s a light and healthy monounsaturated fat.
It is because of this genetic difference that authentic and purebred Wagyu tastes superior to other breeds of beef, including Wagyu crossbreeds, and that it is more expensive.
8. Tight Regulations
In Japan, the government strictly controls and regulates Wagyu production to ensure that quality standards are upheld.
Genetic testing of Wagyu cattle is performed and only those with the best genetics are used for reproduction.
In addition, Wagyu meat is graded according to two factors, namely yield and quality.
The yield grade refers to the amount of meat an animal provides in relation to its carcass and is scored using the letters A to C, with A being the highest yield.
The second grade is used to indicate the quality of the meat and involves factors such as the firmness, texture, color, and marbling of the meat.
It is scored from five to one, with five being the highest.
Only Wagyu beef that scores A3 and up is certified for sale in Japan.
The higher the grade, the higher the price.
The strict selection methods surrounding the production and sale of Wagyu beef contribute to its priciness.
In addition, raters are also paid handsomely for their work since the occupation is highly regarded.
To become a rater, a candidate has to undergo three years of intensive training.
Also, each animal is rated by three raters.
This all adds up to making the rating process quite an expensive exercise.
9. Strict Rearing Guidelines
There are multiple guidelines that farmers need to follow when it comes to the rearing and feeding of Wagyu cattle in order for these animals to pass quality standards.
This is another contributing factor when it comes to the priciness of Wagyu beef.
Apart from ensuring that breeding cattle and pregnant cows have plenty of pasture to graze in, calves are dressed in warm jackets to protect them from the winter cold.
They are also hand-fed with a milk replacement to ensure that their meat has a lot of marbling until they’re about 10 months old, after which they’re sent off to fattening farms.
Once they reach the fattening farms, each Wagyu specimen is provided with a name as opposed to just a mere number.
To fatten them up, these cattle are fed an expensive high-energy feed that consists of a mixture of rice, wheat, and hay.
Also, in order for Wagyu to be classified as Wagyu from a specific area, such as Kobe beef, regulations stipulate that the cattle need to be raised and slaughtered in the same province.
What’s more, only a few selected abattoirs have the license required to process Wagyu meat.
Lastly, and most obviously, Wagyu beef is so expensive because it’s extremely popular.
In the last few years, especially, demand for authentic Wagyu beef has soared, with the effect that the value of Japanese beef exports has increased significantly over the last six years.
The main reason for the popularity of this meat is its exquisite flavor and tenderness.
Since Wagyu beef’s fat melts at lower temperatures than that of regular beef, it can be enjoyed quite rare and will still melt in your mouth.
Apart from its superior taste, Wagyu beef is also popular because it’s healthier than other types of red meat.
Whereas red meats, in general, are known for their high levels of saturated fats, Wagyu beef contains a high ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fat and is a great source of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
FAQs About Wagyu Beef
1. What Are The Four Varieties Of Wagyu Cattle?
There are only four true strains of Wagyu cattle:
- Japanese Black: Before the 20th century, this breed was primarily used as a workhorse. During the Meija Era, however, the breed was elevated through crossbreeding with foreign breeds and was certified as indigenous Japanese beef cattle in 1944. Roughly 90% of all Wagyu cattle that are raised in Japan are of this breed.
- Japanese Brown: This breed, which is also known as Akaushi or red cattle, was improved through the crossbreeding of the Simmenthal and Hanwoo breeds. They are mostly found in Kumamoto and Kochi Prefectures. While the Kumamoto line runs into the hundreds of thousands in number, the Kochi line is much more exclusive and consists of about two thousand specimens, which can be distinguished by the black marks on their noses and feet.
- Japanese Shorthorn: This is an extremely rare breed of Wagyu that represents only about 1% of all cattle in Japan. The cattle have a brown coat and, as their name indicates, small horns. As opposed to the Japanese Black breed, which yields richly marbled meat, the meat of the Japanese Shorthorn is leaner and has a rich umami flavor.
- Japanese Polled: This breed is the result of crossbreeding between the Aberdeen Angus breed from Scotland and the indigenous Japanese Black strain. After further improvements were made to the breed, it was certified as indigenous Japanese beef in 1944. As is the case with the Japanese Shorthorn, the meat of the Japanese Polled breed is lean and has a rich meaty flavor.
2. What’s The Difference Between Kobe And Wagyu Beef?
Kobe is a variety of Wagyu that comes from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle.
In order for Wagyu beef to be certified as Kobe beef, the cattle have to be raised, fattened, and slaughtered in Kobe, which is a region in Japan.
What’s more, all parties involved in getting a piece of Kobe steak onto your plate, including the buyer and the restaurant that sells Kobe beef, need to be licensed by The Kobe Beef Association.
Also, Kobe beef is exclusively rated as A4 or A5 Wagyu beef.
If it’s A3, you know it’s not Kobe.
Another way you can tell that you’re not eating real Kobe beef is when you read “American Kobe” on a label or menu.
Kobe beef can only come from Kobe, Japan, so there is no such thing as American Kobe.
3. What Is Olive Wagyu?
Olive Wagyu beef is the single rarest type of beef in the world.
The beef comes from cattle that are raised on a small Japanese island called Shodoshima.
Because the island is so small, only about 2,000 cattle inhabit the area, which explains why this beef is so rare.
However, there’s another reason the beef from these cattle is so sought after, and that’s their diet.
Shodoshima is home to a well-established olive oil industry.
After farmer Masaki Ishii got the idea to incorporate upscale, toasted olive peels in his cattle feed in 2006, beef from the cattle on this island became world-famous for its unique light yellow marbling and distinct flavor profile.