Steak 101: What is Wagyu?

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Are you really eating Wagyu? Or did the restaurant Trickyu?

Illustration: Matt Golding

Illustration: Matt Golding

When is a Wagyu steak not really a Wagyu steak?

In the Philippines (and other countries), if a beef product has any percentage of Wagyu in it, it can be called “Wagyu” which is very deceptive.

Until a few years ago, Wagyu was an exclusive product found primarily in the fine dining restaurants of Japan.

In order to protect their beef industry, the Japanese Government had banned the export of Wagyu declaring them a national living treasure. Kobe beef, probably the most well-known type of Wagyu, was exported for the first time in early 2012 to Macau.

Philippines had banned Japanese beef imports since 2001 (after the outbreak of mad cow disease in Japan) and just recently lifted the ban last month.

But the label “Wagyu” is thrown around here a lot.

What diners don’t know, and restaurants don’t have to tell them, is that while there might be some Wagyu genes in the meat that’s being served, it’s not exactly pure Wagyu. Wouldn’t you like to know exactly what you’re paying extra for?

What exactly is Wagyu?

Wagyu Japanese Beef

Wagyu is pronounced Wa-gyu. “Wa” means Japanese or Japanese style and “gyu” means cow or beef.

Technically, Wagyu does not describe any single breed since Japan has four distinct cattle breeds: Japanese Black, Brown, Shorthorn, and Polled.

Wagyu Cattle

Wagyu beef cattle stand at Sekiguchi Farm in Kamisato, Saitama Prefecture, Japan. Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg.

Wagyu simply means any cattle that was born and raised in Japan. That’s the real definition of Wagyu but that’s not really how the word is currently used these days.

When people talk about Wagyu nowadays, they’re usually referring to a unique breed of cattle native to Japan that genetically predisposed to A LOT more marbling (finely textured fat within the muscle) than other cattle breeds which produces beef that is A LOT more juicy, tender, and delicious.

A Wagyu steak literally melts in your mouth because the fat in Wagyu is monounsaturated fat which has a lower melting temperature and begins dissolving at 25°C degrees.

Wagyu Kobe Beef

With such heavenly levels of marbling, this also makes Wagyu beef A LOT more expensive than other beef. Prices can go over the equivalent of P20,000 for a steak at a restaurant in Japan.

A lot of time is needed to grow such magnificent creatures that become delicious pieces of steak, sukiyaki, shabu shabu, sashimi, teppanyaki, and even sushi.

Each newborn Wagyu calf stays with its natural mother for about 10-12 months. Then it’s separated, fed and fattened with a proprietary diet usually made from hay, rice straw, barley and corn for the next 24 months. That’s at least 3 years of tender loving care, compared to about 18 months for other cattle. The extra length adds to the cost.

It’s not just about the length of raising Wagyu, but also the extreme amount of care that farmers give. For example, one farmer feeds his Wagyu calves customized meals in their private stalls, while dressing them in T-shirts and jackets to make sure they don’t get cold.

The cows are said to be treated like royalty, living a stress-free life, with their muscles barely having to be used. This results in beef containing snow white fat that thoroughly marbles the muscle meat when it comes time to visit the butcher. Some Wagyu farmers probably treat their Japanese cows better than their spouses!

Every cattle farmer in Japan has his own method of lavishing their cows, from supposedly massaging them with sake, giving them beer or mineral water to drink, or creating a secret blend of ingredients in their feed that would probably even make the chicken-loving Colonel Sanders proud.

Whether all these practices are actually true, it’s hard to know for sure since Wagyu farmers are very secretive.

Wagyu Treatment

Aside from farmers’ “secret” practices, location also plays a role in having different types of Wagyu. Since Wagyu strains are isolated according to prefecture (like a province), the names of Japanese cattle are derived from where they are from.

That’s why all Kobe beef is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu beef is Kobe. To be legally labeled as Kobe beef, the cattle must be raised in Hyogo prefecture, of which Kobe is the capital.

Just like in the NBA, where it’s not just about Kobe, when it comes to Wagyu, it’s not just about Kobe beef.

Just like there are other superstar NBA players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, there are types of Wagyu beef that are just as good or even better than Kobe beef.

Other examples are Kagoshima and Saga beef, where the cattle are raised from their namesake prefectures. As well as Matsusaka beef, from cattle raised in Mie prefecture. And Omi beef from the Shiga prefecture.

Wagyu Brands in Japan

Because these are different areas of Japan, each type of Wagyu has its own unique taste and texture from not only the secret practices of its farmers, but from environmental conditions of where the cows are grown.

Each region and farmer closely guard their methods as they compete to produce the highest quality beef not only in Japan, but in the world.

Now that you know what true Wagyu is (a genetically unique cattle breed that is more marbled than other breeds) and where they come from (different areas of Japan), let’s now discuss how the label Wagyu is abused for marketing purposes.

How the Wagyu label is misused

Regulations in Japan restrict the use of the word “Wagyu” to beef produced in Japan only. So if you’re eating at a restaurant in Japan, it’s sure to be real Wagyu. Easy enough.

But outside of Japan, that’s where it becomes not so easy and you should become suspicious.

Wagyu could actually be from Japan (highly unlikely). Or the beef could originate from another country and still be labeled as Wagyu.

Japanese rules say if the beef didn’t come from Japan, it shouldn’t be called Wagyu. Even if the cow is originally from Japan and was flown to another country.

But outside Japan, the “Wagyu beef can only be called Wagyu beef if it’s from Japan” rule doesn’t apply.

Wagyu breeds are now being raised in the United States, Australia and others areas around the world, even here in the Philippines.

Locally, we have “Kitayama Wagyu,” sourced from local Brahman cattle crossbred with Australian Wagyu.

While there are some ranches that raise authentic 100% Wagyu beef, most mix the Wagyu breed with local breeds such as Angus and Holstein. Even fewer raise and feed their Wagyu cattle to Japanese standards.

As long as two cows mate and one of them has Wagyu genes, whether the percentage is 100% or 1%, the calf can be sold as Wagyu.

The reason the “Wagyu” label is used is because people associate it with being the highest quality meat… the zenith of eating beef. Even though this might not be the case with what’s actually being sold.

That’s why if you see Wagyu in restaurants here in the Philippines, it’s important to know whether what they’re carrying is genuine. While there’s a possibility that it is, more likely it’s one of the other “types” of Wagyu.

There are three types of Wagyu breeds sold and it’s important to understand the main differences among them.

Three “types” of Wagyu

Fullblood Wagyu is 100% pure breed with the records to prove it. If I were an offspring, the sire (my dad) and the dam (my mom), originated from Japan or both their ancestors did.

Fullblood Wagyu

Crossbred (or F1) is when a fullblood Wagyu bull is mated with another breed. Naturally, the offspring contains 50% Wagyu genetics.

Crossbred Wagyu

Purebred (or F4) is where it gets interesting and involves a lot of mating. Stay with me here.

First, a fullblood Wagyu bull is mated with a base breed of cow (like Angus) to produce a first cross or F1. This produces an offspring that is 50% Wagyu and 50% Angus.

Next, the F1 female is then mated with a fullblood Wagyu to produce a second cross or F2. This produces an offspring that is 75% Wagyu and 25% Angus.

Next, the F2 female is then mated with a fullblood Wagyu to produce a third cross or F3. This produces an offspring that is 87.5% Wagyu and 12.5% Angus.

Finally, the F3 female is then mated with a fullblood Wagyu to produce a third cross or F4. This produces an offspring that is 93.75% Wagyu and 6.25% Angus.

Purebreed

Due to the wonderful world of breeding magic, this F4 offspring is now considered purebred or almost pure Wagyu.

At least in the US and Australia.

The Japanese laugh at such labeling mischief.

Since the cow contains “inferior” genes, they don’t see anything pure about this beef and don’t recognize purebred Wagyu. The Japanese still consider it as crossbred.

So there you have it, unless it’s a fullblood, it’s not really Wagyu.

Are you paying full price for a half-Wagyu?

In Japan, Wagyu can be described only when it comes from a 100% fullblood Wagyu animal. In other countries, the Wagyu label is used even when it comes from a first-cross or F1 animal that’s only 50% Wagyu.

Based on their prices, most Wagyu products currently sold locally aren’t fullblood Wagyu. Most likely, they’re F1 beef.

F1 beef that’s labeled as Wagyu is misleading. Crossbred beef does not have the same eating experience as fullblood Wagyu beef.

In Japan, farmers are not allowed to use the term Wagyu when marketing crossbred (F1) beef. In Australia, guidelines have recently been introduced to prohibit crossbred (F1) beef from using the term Wagyu to stop any confusion for consumers. Hopefully, similar guidelines are introduced worldwide.

While there’s a big difference between fullblood Wagyu and F1 beef, F1 beef is not necessarily bad.

(Australia produces a lot of F1 beef and their No. 1 export customer is…Japan. Not every Japanese can afford to eat Wagyu.)

Assuming you pick a steak with a solid marbling grade that’s prepared well, F1 beef is still delicious. But not as delicious as fullblood so you certainly shouldn’t be paying for F1 beef at fullblood Wagyu price.

That’s why beef shouldn’t be sold as “Wagyu” when it’s crossbred.

Unfortunately, the Philippines has no laws against calling anything Wagyu beef. So buyer beware. Most beef sold here as Wagyu is most likely not Japanese Wagyu.

Wagyu CertificationTrue authentic fullblood Wagyu is still a rarity outside Japan. When you see it on it a menu, ask to see proof of authenticity. A restaurant with the real stuff will be proud to show you the certification. Make sure to clarify the origin and quality grade of the beef before ordering.

It would be tragic if you ordered something you thought was really Wagyu, spent a lot of money on it, and ended up disappointed. So request documentation.

Wagyu beef should be identified as fullblood, crossbred (F1, F2, or F3), or purebred (F4) and by its origin (usually US or Australia, and very rarely, Japan).

Labeling should be more accurate so customers know exactly what they’re buying. Maybe it should be labeled “wagyu” with a small “w.” Or maybe “Australian Wagyu” or “American Wagyu,” which technically doesn’t make sense, but at least it tells you it’s not real Wagyu.

If it’s not 100% fullblood Wagyu, call it what it really is.

Wagyu-ish.

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About Author

Odell Ramirez

A self-educated Ebonics linguist who aspires to teach Honors Ebonics classes one day. Until then, he works as the clown-in-residence at looloo. He has a B.S. in B.S. and was working on a master's degree in playa hatin, but discovered he can just get a Ph.D.