Wagyu Beef – Why all the Fuss?

by Steve Johnson

The consumer market in America has been conditioned and driven by “what’s new” for approximately 70 years. Many manufacturers in a variety of industries come out with a whole new line of products every year to help stimulate interest in their products and brand from cars to fashion to electronic devices. New product development is the cornerstone of marketing in western civilization.

Just what does that have to do with Wagyu beef? Everything. While the casual consumer probably perceives beef as just another boring agricultural commodity product that has its cost controlled by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange … while that is not totally untrue, it is also not quite that simple. Successful marketers take commodity products and use expertise to add value to those products so they can earn a profit. Easy right? In theory, maybe … This is where products like Wagyu beef come in to the conversation …

Wagyu beef is not Kobe beef, BUT Kobe beef is Wagyu. Wagyu beef cattle can be any or a combination of the following breeds: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled. What most people don’t know is that Kobe is a city in Japan than became famous for the beef that it produces in its Hyogo Prefecture, and to this day the only place to procure true Kobe beef is from Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. Wagyu is simply a breed of cattle, much like Aberdeen Angus, Piedmontese, Charolais or Long Horns. Cattle breed types vary greatly, like most other domestic animals. Wagyu cattle are known for producing heavy marbling that far surpasses the marbling found in most domestic breeds of cattle.

In America, there is a lot of misconception as to what Kobe beef is, many people confuse American Wagyu beef with Kobe beef and believe the two are interchangeable. While Wagyu beef is considerably different genetically than American breeds, the same feeding process is used to finish both breeds. In “American Wagyu” cattle it is not uncommon to do a partial cross with a traditional American beef breed, generally Angus, to create a Wagyu/Wagyu cross genetic that fits into the American beef production model better.

So why is Wagyu beef so much more expensive than other beef? Short answer; “time and feed”. It takes a minimum of 450 to 500 days on finish ration to produce Wagyu beef and many feed them for over 600 days. Compare that to the average 225 to 250 days on finish ration for most American breeds, like Angus, Hereford or Charolais. This is purely a difference in genetics. The first question that comes to the mind of most consumers is; “what happens if Angus cattle are fed for a longer time, will they marble like Wagyu?” and while this is a perfectly reasonable question, the answer is “No”. Why? Very simply, “genetics”. The Angus and Angus cross gene that dominates the U.S. beef production landscape will marble to a point, but after this point is reached it tends to add fat between the hide and carcass, increasing the “yield grade” (please refer to page 20 for our article on USDA Grading for a more in depth explanation of yield grade). Unlike the Angus and Angus cross cattle, Wagyu cattle continue to marble for a much longer period of time so long feeding them increases the degree of marbling. Or simply, Wagyu cattle require a great deal more time and feed to finish. Time and feed add a significant amount of cost to the cattle, this increases the overall cost of the beef.

Is it really better?? That depends completely upon customer expectations. Wagyu is definitely a premium beef product. It is different than Angus and other domestic breeds. USDA Prime Angus beef is also an exceptional product. Wagyu generally exhibits somewhat more marbling than USDA Prime with some subtle differences in the fat type and content, but to say that it is “better” than high quality Angus/Angus cross beef is a bit of a stretch. It is very different, though, and is considerably more expensive to produce. Ultimately, the choice belongs to the customer and variety is the spice of life. We will continue to raise both breeds of cattle and proudly offer them for sale to our valued customers.