wagyu beef on a wooden cutting board

Wagyu Beef – Why is it so expensive?

Beef that is produced in Japan, Wagyu, is gaining mass popularity across the globe. Wagyu literally translates to Japanese cow. This high-grade beef is prized for it’s rich, marbling texture and its buttery taste.

Wagyu beef can cost up to $200 per pound and the cows can sell themselves up to $30,000. Comparatively Black Angus Cattle, which is considered the cream of the crop in the US and Australia, typically don’t sell for more than $3,000. Why does this beef cost so much? It has to do with production prices, Japan’s tight regulations and the global demand.

There are four main breeds or Wagyu beef:

Kuroge, Japanese Black; Akage, Japanese Brown; Nihon Tankaku, Japanese Shorthorn and Mukaku, Japanese Polled. These cows are bread for their physical endurance, resulting in more inter-muscular fat cells that are delivered more evenly throughout their muscles.

The Japanese government has tight regulations to keep the value and quality of the meat intact.

Wagyu beef is graded of two main factors:

How much meat can be yielded and the quality of the marbling fat. Only A3 – A5 grade is certified for sale in Japan and the higher the grade, the higher the price.

Wagyu beef has gained legendary status across the globe. This resulted in many myths and rumors including that the cows are fed beer and treated to daily massages.

Wagyu beef is raised differently in each region, but generally they are raised by a breeder until they are 10 months old where they will be auctioned off to a fattening farm. By the time the calves are ready for auction they can already fetch forty times a higher price than US cattle.

Fattening farmers will keep them in small pens and feed them a mixture of fiber and high energy concentrate made from rice, wheat and hay. They’re fed three times a day for almost two years until they are 50% fat. Only pregnant cows and breeding cattle are aloud of feed on pastures.

The length of the fattening process and the import prices of the concentrated feed increase the price of the beef. Over the course of the fattening period each cow will eat 5 tons of feed.

High marbling is the common goal for Wagyu beef.

There are more than 300 varieties of Wagyu, but the most notable comes from 10 regions.

one of the most expensive cuts comes from Matsusaka Wagyu from the Mie Prefecture. Made exclusively from virgin female cows it is highly prized for its tenderness. However, the best-known cut of Wagyu is Kobe beef which comes from the city of Kobe in the Hyogo Prefecture. It is made exclusively from steers or castrated bulls.

Wagyu’s popularity is growing world-wide but the domestic picture is quite different. the popularity of Wagyu is slumping slightly. In 2017 Japan imported more US beef over any other country.

The value of Wagyu has risen over 200% in the past 5 years. As Japans population ages, farmers are struggling to keep up with the global demand, raising prices even more. However, the high cost hasn’t discouraged international sales. in 2013 Japan exported 5 billion yen in Wagyu. last year exports hit 24.7 billion yen – $228 million.

Japan may have some competition when it comes to producing high quality Wagyu in the future. Countries like the US, Australia and the UK have been working on breeding their own Wagyu. They rely mostly on cross breeding at only 50% pure bread, but that may be changing soon.

In the UK 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 soon there may be a lot more Wagyu that costs a lot less.