Differences Between Australian, Japanese and American Wagyu Beef

Wagyu beef is undoubtedly the most famous meat in the world - and its reputation is more than deserved.  Wagyu has a flavor, texture and marbling that can't be found in any other meat.  This unique dining experience comes from thousands of years of careful breeding and the utmost care of premium cattle. 

Wagyu has become more popular over the years and, in turn, far more exclusive due to the strict limits on exports and protection of rearing techniques and feed.  Genuine Wagyu of the most exceptional quality is hard to find and appears on the menu of only the best restaurants around the world - until now.   

At A Five Meats, we are proud to present the finest Wagyu selections available, and we're excited to share more with you about Wagyu from around the world.  Read on to find out more about how Wagyu herds have developed in different areas of the globe, and what makes them all different from each other. 

Why Is Japanese Wagyu Limited In Supply?

Wagyu originated in Japan thousands of years ago, with farmers passing their wisdom down through the generations.  An export ban put in place by Japan to protect its heritage as a national dish meant it was incredibly difficult to obtain supplies of Wagyu.  Breeding was far more complicated, with neither livestock nor genetic material to enable a breeding program available for export for many years.

Even now, only around 10% of all Kobe beef produced is exported, with 90% retained for the domestic Japanese market. 

In 1975, however, a small number of live cattle were allowed to leave Japan.  As a result, there was a limited introduction of a few select animals into Australia and the United States.  These herds formed the basis for both full blood and crossbreeding programs.   

What Is Crossbreeding?

Crossbreeding techniques combine the genetics of a Wagyu bull with a different breed of cow (otherwise known as a 'dam').  Crossbreeding continues through the generations, and with every combination of the female offspring joined with a Wagyu bull, there is an increasing percentage of Wagyu genetics in the bloodline. 

Eventually, as Wagyu breed through generations in this way (known as 'breeding up'), the cattle at the fourth generation become known as 'Purebred,' containing at least 93% Wagyu genetics through the crossbreeding program. 

The other term used to describe Wagyu's genetic status is 'Full Blood' – this means it is 100% traceable back to the Japanese Wagyu bloodline.  There is no crossbreeding, and both the bull and cow were full Wagyu.  They do not necessarily need to be physically located in Japan, although they do need to evidence traceability back to a Japanese herd. 

Things to Know About Japanese Wagyu

Japan is where Wagyu originated over two thousand years ago. 

There are four different breeds of Japanese Wagyu:

  • Japanese Brown
  • Japanese Black
  • Japanese Polled
  • Japanese Shorthorn  

The breeds receive a local identifier according to the area from which they originate, for example, Kobe, Kagoshima, Matsusaka, and Ohmi.  The use of a local naming convention carries a 'protected status,' meaning only cattle raised in those areas can use the name.  

The carcasses are in the same area they were raised, with only a selection of abattoirs licensed to process the carcasses. The principal is the same as how only Champagne from the Champagne region of France can carry the name.  The most famous region to raise Wagyu is Kobe, in the Hyogo prefecture. 

Climate can have a significant influence on the flavor and quality of the meat.  Japan has a perfect combination of good rainfall, grasses, and fresh springs.  Combined with the Japanese reputation for perfection, animal welfare of the highest standard, and the suitability of the climate, Wagyu from Japan is truly unique

Wagyu feed in Japan has a basis in rice plants, hay, and wheat, with continuous access to fresh, crisp, clean water at all times.  Each Wagyu farmer in Japan has individually perfected their feed formula, which they guard carefully, painstakingly developing it through generations.  All animals are allowed to graze in open space, with the utmost care and attention paid to minimizing stress for each member of the herd.  Japanese Wagyu feed for longer than other Wagyu around the world, meaning they have plenty of time to lay down the perfect marbling in their precious meat.

All Japanese Wagyu carry a lineage certificate going back three generations and have a unique ten-digit number assigned to each animal.  Each cut of meat is traceable from farm to fork.

Grading of Japanese Wagyu is a complex process, with inspectors training for at least three years to attain their highly respected positions.  Three separate inspectors assess each animal and grade accordingly.  Grading measures a combination of several factors, including a marble score between 1 and 12.  Only the finest meats attain the quality score A5, which has to carry a score of at least 8+ in marbling, using a section taken from the 6th and 7th ribs of the animal.

 

Things to Know About Australian Wagyu

Australia hosts the largest population of Wagyu outside of Japan.

In addition to that, Australia also has the largest breed association outside of Japan (the Australian Wagyu Association). 

A small number of cattle came into Australia in the latter half of the 1970s and 1980s.  These cattle are as close to Japanese Wagyu as can be achieved outside of Japan.  Australian herds are, therefore, a mix of purebred and crossbred animals.

The climate varies around the country and is different from the Japanese environment.  There is plenty of open space, with conditions in the North hot and humid, providing tropical grasses for feeding.  The southern climate is fresher, and the grass there is more traditional.  Feed formulae vary from farm to farm, although the cattle do not graze as long as Japanese Wagyu. As a result, Australian Wagyu has a slightly different texture while still presenting a rich, buttery flavor profile.

Crossbreeding can have its advantages, though.  For example, the first generation – referred to as F1 – with a Holstein dam can produce offspring with higher resistance to disease and illness.  While not a Purebred or full blood, the animal is still highly valuable and can be used to 'breed up' through to higher grades (from F1 at 50% Wagyu, all the way up to F4 – or purebred – at 93%+ Wagyu genetics).  The majority of Wagyu in Australia are of the Holstein F1 crossbreeding category.

Grading in Australia is different from Japan.  There are two associations which grade Wagyu: Ausmeat and MSA (Meat Standards Australia).  Both gradings use a marble score (known as a 'BMS' – beef marbling score) between 0 and 9 and can go up to a 9+ for exceptional quality.  A sample taken from between the 12th and 13th ribs of the animal forms the basis for the score received.  Higher scores range from Silver Label (BMS 6-7), Black Label (BMS 8-9), and Double Black Label (BMS9+). 

The majority of Wagyu cattle in Australia use the Holstein crossbreeding method, with formula feed varying between farms and a total ban on antibiotics.  They are generally not grazed as long as Japanese animals, due to the shorter grazing time and differing feed. 

Things to Know About American Wagyu

Finally, we come to the American Wagyu. 

The American Wagyu program started in the mid-1970s through the first shipment from Japan of just four animals – all bulls, two black and two red - reaching Morris Whitney.  Only around two hundred heads of cattle have ever been imported into the U.S. from Japan, resulting in a population of mainly crossbred animals.

American Wagyu generally consists of a crossbreed of 50% Wagyu, with less than 5,000 full blood animals.  Crossbreeding in the U.S. is usually between a Wagyu bull with an Angus dam.  The resulting offspring are otherwise known as American Style Kobe, with the meat sold as American Style Kobe beef.  Holstein cows are also commonly used in combination with Wagyu bulls.  That said, there are still several farms that specialize in 100% full blood Wagyu.

The U.S. formed the American Wagyu Association in 1990 to protect standards.  Quality of life and care are essential to produce high-quality meat.  There are no other breeds that even come close to the flavor of American Wagyu throughout the country.  

Regulation standards do not have the same tight controls as in Japan, with quality scoring using a different method to Japanese and Australian approaches, tending more toward the use of BMS as a basis for quality. American Wagyu do not graze as long as those in Japan, and traceability is somewhat limited (unless it is from a full blood herd). However, there is total transparency in the feed used, which helps support accountability in the industry. 

Summary

In summary, there are a variety of distinct differences between herds in the three different countries.  The climate, feed, crossbreeding and breeding up programs, grazing periods, grading methods, and regulations all differ.

The Japanese Wagyu take the long term approach, with slow and careful methods using an entirely pure bloodline to support full historical traceability.  Exports are minimal, feed combinations, and rearing techniques remain closely guarded through the generations.  The climate is also unique.  The result is in an exclusivity famous globally and unsurpassed quality.

The Australian Wagyu has the most successful breeding program outside of Japan.  With a varied climate, antibiotic-free diet, shorter grazing time, and careful crossbreeding, Australia has managed to build up a respectable herd, exporting meat around the world. 

The American Wagyu led the way back in the 1970s when they introduced the first Wagyu livestock from Japan.  With different climates, a marbling oriented grading system, and a vast crossbreeding program, Wagyu and its crossbred derivatives are more available than ever before, supporting Wagyu's popularity.  Full blood breeding farms exist successfully in the U.S. and continue to keep standards and quality high.

The result of these three different approaches is Japan remains the guardian of Wagyu heritage, producing exclusive limited supplies of the highest quality, commanding the highest prices.  In Australia, they have a successful breeding program that has created Wagyu rich in buttery flavor, with a unique texture, and a hardy strain through crossbreeding.  In the U.S., there is a broader variety of crossbreeding, producing good quality meat for an ever-increasing audience of those wishing to enjoy the finest things in life.

At A Five Meats, we have been around the world to bring you the most exclusive selections the world has to offer.  All our orders are shipped chilled, not frozen, to bring you the freshest meats of perfect quality straight to your door.  Our passion is serving you the very best, and we are with you every step of the way on your Wagyu journey.