Australian Wagyu Beef: A Phenomenon
Wagyu beef is becoming increasingly rare, due to exports from Japan being severely limited. Live exports of Japanese Wagyu cattle are not allowed.
Therefore, this means countries outside of Japan have had to find a way to bring Wagyu to their consumers - without compromising that legendary Wagyu quality. Australia is at the forefront of Wagyu breeding programs outside of Japan. At A Five Meats we would like to introduce you to Australian Wagyu and show you more about how it differs from its authentic Japanese counterpart.
To start us off, we'll find out more about the history of Wagyu and what makes it so unique. Wagyu cattle originate from Japan, put to work in days gone by as heavy hauling draft animals in rice fields and arable farms. With their stocky, muscular frame, and incredible endurance, they were able to summon large reserves of energy at short notice thanks to the exceptional marbling webbed intricately within their muscle fibers.
Wagyu lay down a network of delicate intramuscular fats (known as IMF) over several years of grazing. These fats melt at very low temperatures upon cooking and absorb into the meat fibers, making Wagyu succulent and juicy with a luxurious buttery taste. The taste is unparalleled, and it's this that has made Wagyu beef so popular.
The health qualities of Wagyu are unsurpassed, making it one of the healthiest meats known to us. High in monounsaturated fats, low in saturated fat and low in salt, it actively helps lower levels of dangerous LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream. Health benefits like these are a huge positive in today's world, where heart disease is one of the biggest killers.
So, where does Australia come into this? The Australian Wagyu market came about due to a limited number of live Wagyu imported in the 1980s.
Founded in 1989 upon the arrival of the first Fullblood livestock, the Australian Wagyu Association sets formal standards. It protects the quality and progeny of Australian Wagyu herds and runs a breed verification program. Also, the Australian Wagyu Association provides regulatory guidance on strictly controlled labeling of Wagyu products.
Since then, Australia has now become home to the largest Wagyu herds outside of Japan. Vast swathes of grazing land and successful breeding programs meant Australian Wagyu quickly gained a foothold as the closest to authentic Japanese Wagyu without being Japanese!
The climate varies significantly in different areas of the country, with Northern Australia being hot and humid in character. The Southern regions, on the other hand, have a fresher feel to the air with lower temperatures. Differing climates significant grazing variations: Northern territories offer more tropical grasses, whereas the South is rich in more traditional rye style grass varieties. These are not the only differences where feed is concerned, compared to Japan.
Japanese Wagyu enjoy a closely guarded feed formula, with each farm having an individually tailored feed regime and mix for their particular herd. These recipes often get pass down through generations, a precious secret beholden to only but the family. While the exact mixture is not shared, the basis is relatively consistent, generally based around corn, rice, grain, and wheat. Australian herds, however, while still having feed developed by each farm, are typically given a more grass based diet, with wheat and barley additions.
Not only that, the Australian Wagyu herds are protected by a strict 'no antibiotics' policy. Australian calves tend to stay with their mother for up to around ten months old, then get released to graze. Grazing time varies but is usually up to two years. By comparison, grazing in Japan is generally around three years and longer. Japanese Wagyu have and more prolonged, slower grazing period during which to accumulate their fat stores, helped along by a sedentary lifestyle.
The result of the shorter Australian grazing phase and variation in diet is that Australian Wagyu tend to be smaller, weighing in at around half the size of a Japanese Wagyu animal. The texture is also slightly different – Australian Wagyu is a little firmer, as the delicate marbling has not had so long to establish. Japanese Wagyu has a more complex depth of flavor – but Australian Wagyu still holds up well, retaining a rich buttery aroma and juicy mouthfeel.
Given that Australia has such a different climate and the animals produced by the Australian methods are so much smaller, the prices they command can be significantly lower. The margin of return per animal is nowhere near that of Japanese Wagyu. A form of 'compromise' has been reached over the last few decades, which serves the Australian consumers and market well: crossbreeding.
Crossbreeding is the mating of a pure Wagyu sire with another breed of cow, producing 'crossbred' calves. It can cause variation in the size and structure of the animal, along with differences in coloring, firmness of the meat, resilience, and even mothering skills. Crossbreeding results in either a 'Purebred' or a 'Fullblood' animal. The notation depends upon the percentage of Wagyu genetics held by the dam (mother) at each pairing.
A Fullblood Wagyu is a genuine certified 100% Wagyu specimen that can be traced back to 100% Wagyu parents born and raised in Japan. This lineage must be supported by DNA testing to confirm the provenance of the bloodline. A Purebred is not pure Wagyu but does have at least 93.75% Wagyu genetics.
It is possible to crossbreed from a first generation joining of 50% Wagyu with 50% 'other' to 93.75% Wagyu in four generations - referred to as 'F1' - up to 'F4', otherwise known as a 'Purebred' Wagyu. The percentages of Wagyu genetics increase through each breeding, as shown below.
1 – First Generation Crossbreed
- 100% Fullblood Wagyu bull introduced to a different breed cow
- Offspring have 50%+ Wagyu DNA
F2 – Second Generation Crossbreed
- F1 cow introduced to 100% Fullblood Wagyu bull
- Offspring have 75%+ Wagyu DNA
F3 – Third Generation Crossbreed
- F2 cow introduced to 100% Fullblood Wagyu bull
- Offspring have 87%+ Wagyu DNA
F4 'Purebred' – Fourth Generation Crossbreed
- F3 cow introduced to 100% Fullblood Wagyu bull
- Offspring are known as 'Purebred' as they have at least 93% Wagyu DNA
The majority of Australian herds consist of Crossbred and Purebred animals, rather than Fullblood Wagyu. Crossbreeding takes advantage of both the strong DNA characteristics of the founding animals and brings the benefits of a hardier, higher yielding breed. Most Australian Wagyu descend from the Japanese Black strain, exported from Japan for a limited period back in the 1970s and 1980s. 'Red' Wagyu (a slight misnomer – they are a rich brown color) are not that desirable in Australia but do hold a far larger proportion in America.
Fullblood animals only make up a relatively small amount of the headcount in Australian Wagyu herds. Around 100,000 Wagyu are joined annually in the country, with only approximately 18% of those thought to be Fullblood Wagu animals. The rest are Purebred or Crossbred, meaning the Fullblood herd is far rarer, increasingly so with each crossbred generation.
In terms of grading, the Australian meat system differs from the Japanese system. In Australia, two authorities grade Wagyu beef: Ausmeat and MSA (Meat Standards Australia). Both associations grade Wagyu carcasses with a marble score (otherwise known as a 'BMS' – or 'beef marbling score'). Beef Marbling Scores range between 0 and 9, ranging up to 9+ for the finest and most exceptional quality.
Grade sampling takes meat from between the 10th and 11th ribs of the carcass. The sample is then assessed and graded by inspectors. Higher Beef Marbling Scores range from Silver Label (BMS 6-7), Black Label (BMS 8-9), and Double Black Label (BMS9+). Australian Wagyu beef typically scores around a six for crossbred animals, with higher scores around eight being more prevalent for Fulblood specimens.
The Japanese government has assigned authentic Japanese Wagyu beef as a 'national treasure.' Consequently, live Wagyu exports are banned, and all Wagyu meat has to be shipped strictly off the bone. Add to this the rarity of Japanese exports - with only around 10% of Japanese Wagyu produced being allowed into the International export market – and there is a clear opportunity. Australia recognized and has taken advantage of this gap in supply, and subsequently enjoys a healthy export market.
Australian farmers export the majority of their domestic Wagyu, enjoying a supply network reaching around the globe. Only around 10% of Wagyu carcasses get retained for domestic Australian markets, with approximately 90% prepared for overseas international shipment. Export markets for Australian Wagyu include Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the United States.
While the Australian Wagyu animal is leaner than its Japanese counterpart, with a firmer texture to the meat, it also has a significantly lower price point. Australian Wagyu can be up to a third of the price of Fullblood Japanese Wagyu beef. However, there are considerations of export costs, fees, and taxes to bear in mind – all of which can run into a considerable amount.
Offsetting these costs to a degree are shorter grazing periods and the lower degree of complexity associated with Australian feed methods. Land is also at a far lower premium, so herds have a far broader range of grazing pasture to enjoy than Japanese Wagyu. Not only that, the strains tend to be hardier (through crossbreeding with either Holstein or Angus dams), meaning fewer health issues and increasingly adaptable nature, even taking into account the complete ban on antibiotics in Wagyu feed.
In Australia, farmers have excelled in developing a successful breeding program respected globally throughout the industry for its innovation and integrity. Careful crossbreeding and upbreeding with Purebred Australian animals means the character of the original Wagyu herds are retained and protected through stringent regulations and standards. Wagyu beef is now available to a broader audience than ever before, at a lower cost in a more accessible export market. In a world where genuine Japanese Wagyu beef is almost impossible to obtain, even in domestic Japan, Australia has stepped up to offer a credible (but never authentic) alternative.
A Five Meats have visited farms around the world to bring the finest of selections to our customers.
We offer Australian Wagyu in our Wagyu Feast Pack and Wagyu Essential Pack, hand selected with expedited chilled shipping straight to your door. Our meat packs are never delivered frozen, giving our customers the confidence that they have the freshest, most delectable cuts available.