How To Tell The Difference Between Real And Fake Wagyu Beef

Wagyu beef is the height of luxury dining around the world.  Highly prized by a select few restaurants and coveted by top chefs all over the globe, commanding prices that make Wagyu a dream for many. 

But with great popularity and exclusivity, unfortunately, comes a flip side: counterfeit and fakery. 

Most people have seen something labeled as ‘Wagyu’ – but is that the case? It’s a sad fact that imitation Wagyu is all too rife. 

A Five Meats are here as a purveyor of quality authentic Wagyu to help guide you in how to spot and avoid fakes, and why they exist in the first place. 

Why Does Fake Wagyu Beef Exist?

The best way to understand why counterfeit Wagyu beef even has a market is to know how and why it is so important.  Let’s start at the beginning with a little history about Japanese Wagyu in particular: Wagyu beef originates in Japan, from only four breeds of cattle (Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Shorthorn). 

Careful breeding of Wagyu goes back over two thousand years, with each farm having unique feed formulae and techniques passed down from generation to generation and shrouded in myth and mystery.

It’s not just the breed that makes Japanese Wagyu – there is so much more.  Each variety is raised and slaughtered in a particular area within a specific prefecture of Japan.  Once the abattoir has processed the animal, an inspection takes place by three separate (and highly qualified and respected) inspectors. They then assign the meat a grade according to stringent standards. 

Related: 8 Things You Didn't Know About Wagyu Beef

Grading of Wagyu has to fully satisfy a variety of factors even to make the grade, including marbling, yield, color, fat standard, firmness, and texture.  Only if all of these factors are in the highest bracket can grading be awarded – with only a very select few making the highest allocation - A5.  Each Japanese Wagyu animal carries a certificate and unique ID number throughout its lifecycle, even to the table, to allow it to be traced from farm to fork. 

But it doesn’t end there - that’s just the end of the story.  The care of every individual Wagyu is renowned and famous for its secrecy – in fact, it carries legendary status in the livestock world.  Wagyu cattle graze around twice as long as standard cattle, enjoying a closely guarded feed formula combined with open air natural grazing and access to crisp fresh water at all times.  Wagyu enjoy a stressless, peaceful, and serene life, with any concerns or issues resolved immediately.

Now that we know about the dedication, heritage, and expertise required to rear and produce Wagyu, let’s learn a little more about how much Wagyu is available and how that impacts costs.  Japan reveres Wagyu as a national treasure, and for that reason, exports are very carefully controlled.  No livestock, and no genetic material. 

When we think about rarity, we can take the Kobe variety of Wagyu as an example.  The Hyogo government keeps twelve of its most prized Wagyu bulls at a particular facility.  To qualify as genuine Kobe Wagyu beef, it must trace back to one of these twelve bulls.  The amount of authentic Kobe beef produced for export in Japan in the space of a year amounts to less than a medium-sized cattle ranch in the United States in the same length of time.

As if this wasn’t staggering enough, there are only a few restaurants in the whole of the United States that hold a license to serve authentic Wagyu Kobe beef (A Five is one of them!). Japanese authorities issue the permit, and as of 2016, only eight U.S. restaurants held one.  The popularity of Wagyu multiplies year on year as people discover the experience, meaning it is harder and harder to find.

Related: Where Can I Buy Wagyu Beef?

The picture is starting to build as to how and why a fake market exists.  And that’s before we talk about the taste of the meat itself (that comes later!).

Why Can’t Real And Fake Wagyu Be The Same?

We know why Wagyu is so expensive, but another question is, why can’t an imitation ‘make the grade’? Surely, good quality beef is good quality beef? Well, there are very sound reasons why this isn’t the case where Wagyu is concerned.

Genuine Wagyu is fully certified.  It also has a distinct marbling and fat dispersion pattern, caused by the years of grazing and carefully managed diet.  The sedentary lifestyle of Wagyu, with thousands of years of controlled breeding and dedication, means any other cattle can’t compete to even sit on the same shelf.

There are incredibly few 100% full blood Wagyu in the world at all.  Every time a cow crossbreeds for the first time, half of that precious DNA (and therefore half of the distinct characteristics of Wagyu) is lost.  It can, of course, be worked back through into the bloodline by ‘breeding up’ – breeding each female offspring in the following generations with a full blood Wagyu bull. 

Those selected crossbred animals will eventually get to ‘F4 status’ if a stringent breeding program is in place – where they can finally hold 93% or more Wagyu genetics.  Breeding up takes years of expertise and dedication to make a return on investment.

Let’s move onto the complexities of the makeup of Wagyu beef because it’s an underestimation to say it’s just ‘special.’  Wagyu beef is known as a healthy option.  In reality, it is one of the healthiest meats on earth – and that’s no exaggeration.  Honestly, it’s a big claim, but it’s true.

Wagyu contains around 63 times the amount of monounsaturated fats than fish.  Monounsaturated fats are lower in LDL cholesterol (the type which blocks arteries) and more abundant in HDL cholesterol (the ‘good’ cholesterol that reaches the liver for processing) than other meats.  Not only that but also around 40% of the saturated fat in Wagyu consists of stearic acid, which again contributes to keeping cholesterol low.

Related: Why Is Wagyu Beef Healthier Than Other Meats? 

Wagyu beef is incredibly rich in the substance conjugated linoleic acid (otherwise known as CLA), which can help reduce the risk of both type 2 diabetes and heart attacks.  Wagyu contains the highest amount per gram of almost any foodstuff and around 30% more than any other cattle breed.  The salt content of Wagyu meat is lower than pork, fish, chicken, turkey, and even venison.  On top of all this, Wagyu beef also has considerably less overall cholesterol than other meats, 20% lower than regular beef, and 22% less than pork. 

It’s for all of these reasons that fake and real Wagyu cannot possibly be the same.  Fakes may taste good – they good taste great.  But they will never, ever be able to stand up to Wagyu at a chemical, physical, or heritage standard because it’s not physically possible for them to do so. 

How To Spot Fake Wagyu

Armed with more details about the background of thousands of years of Wagyu breeding, and how and why it is revered, it’s essential to know how to spot whether Wagyu meat is real or fake. 

There is a relatively simple set of criteria that should set alarm bells ringing if they can’t be met, or aren’t quite right.  These include: 

  • Cost. Given the financial investment required to rear Wagyu, let alone rear it to meet the necessary standards upon inspection and then onto export, prices should be at an appropriate level.  Wagyu beef generally starts at $20 per ounce at the very least, steadily increasing depending on the quality.  Anything less than that deserves closer inspection to determine authenticity. 
  • Appearance. Wagyu beef has a distinct marbling pattern, which is incredibly difficult to replicate.  The classic dispersion of fats is as small pinpricks or dots of white fat, joined by a network of incredibly intricate veins of fatty deposits.  These fats are deposited the right way through the flesh and are known as ‘intramuscular fats’ (sometimes shortened to IMF).  The meat should be pale pink together with the marbling – almost pearlescent -  as it consists of a combination of fats and flesh unique to the structure of Wagyu beef.
  • Provenance. Every cut of genuine Wagyu is traceable back to the farm where it originated.  For example, authentic Kobe beef should be traceable back to one of only twelve sire bulls.  Any restaurant that serves Wagyu beef has a copy of the certificate of authenticity to prove the meat’s provenance and will advise exactly where the meat has come from upon request.  Anything short of these standards should arouse suspicion.
  • Taste. Even with all the other checkpoints met, it’s the taste that will give the game away for fake Wagyu.  The taste and texture of Wagyu are exclusive and unique, and the fat should melt at just below body temperate – meaning it should melt in the mouth.  It should have a buttery aroma and be tender and succulently juicy, but not soggy.  

Other giveaways include serving size (Wagyu does not accommodate large servings), and even the name used on the menu.  For example, Wagyu referred to as ‘American Style Kobe,’ is not full Wagyu – it tends to be a crossbreed of Wagyu and Angus.  If you're looking for Japanese Wagyu, it should carry the correct and accurate naming convention.

In short, Wagyu meat of the highest standards is not – and should not be – on offer for barter.  Wagyu beef is an experience, a privilege, and a luxury delicacy, with the cost being the price of such an opportunity and treasure – the product of generations of dedication. 

Where To Buy Real Wagyu

Purveyors of Wagyu beef need to be experts in their trade.  Knowledgeable, authentic, and dedicated, with a real passion for Wagyu and an appreciation for it’s revered status.  At A Five Meats, we are committed to selecting only the very highest quality meats for presentation to our customers.  We have searched around the world for the best, sourcing Wagyu from Japan, Australia, and the United States. 

Our Head Chef carefully hand selects every cut to ensure acceptance of only the finest cuts.  Quality is everything, and deliveries of our carefully crafted meat packs are chilled – not frozen.  Every shipment arrives at its very peak of freshness, straight to your door.  Our customers can be confident in our guidance, expertise, and devotion to Wagyu beef.

We are always delighted to meet our family of customers. Wagyu is an experience and a journey, not just food – we are always on hand to help, whether by email, over the phone, or personally in San Francisco. 

Our meat packs are the perfect way to start a lifelong love of Wagyu beef.  Fresh, tender, and perfect to grace any dining setting.  View our exclusive selection on our website to find out more, and rest assured we’re here ready and waiting if you need any advice!