12 Must-Know Facts About Wagyu Beef Grading
A byword for luxury, Wagyu is celebrated the world over for its unique succulence, buttery, umami taste, and unsurpassed melt in the mouth sensation. The health properties of Wagyu beef are astounding – actively helping to lower cholesterol, contributing to reductions in strokes and heart attacks, and supporting resistance to type 2 diabetes.
At A Five Meats, we are proud to present the finest Wagyu, hand selected just for you. But, how do we know we have the finest selections, you may ask? Allow us to introduce you to the art of Wagyu Beef grading with these twelve fascinating facts and answers to everything you need to know about how quality is guaranteed.
1. Why is Wagyu beef graded?
Wagyu beef is famous for being of the very highest quality, and it has a high reputation to uphold. It is an exclusive experience, with supplies incredibly hard to find – especially authentic Japanese Wagyu specimens.
Top chefs and restaurants worldwide pit themselves against each other, scrambling to get just a small selection to serve their diners and take pride of place at the table.
It follows that the rarer a commodity is, the more expensive it is. The more expensive something is, it’s just a matter of time before a market in counterfeit or sub-quality copies manages to make its way out into the market. It is for these reasons that grading and authenticity tests exist and why it is so incredibly stringent. Customers and diners can be confident of the authenticity, and unsurpassed quality of the Wagyu presented.
2. Grading is done differently around the world
Japan is the traditional and natural home of authentic Wagyu Beef.
With soaring popularity over recent years, it is apparent that there’s not quite enough to go around for everyone (it’s a very exclusive product, after all). A select number of countries have solved this problem by breeding herds themselves (more on that later).
They are subsequently graded differently from those authentic Wagyu born, raised, and processed in Japan. They have evolved their own distinct farming styles, together with adapted grading systems.
3. Wagyu beef grading in Japan is a serious business
Nurtured over thousands of years, with care and dedication not seen elsewhere in any livestock rearing environment, Japanese Wagyu farmers commit every moment to their animals. Each farmer’s wisdom and secrets are passed from generation to generation, developing over centuries a fully tailored care package specifically for the cattle on that very farm.
A universal grading system protects these farmers and their years of expertise, setting a universal benchmark to support authentic Japanese Wagyu beef quality and standards. The extensive set of criteria to even use the term ‘Japanese Wagyu’ is tightly controlled - and that’s before grading!
Wagyu inspecting officials are highly regarded and respected in their field. They undergo an intensive training program lasting at least three years, learning from masters in their trade. Every animal is registered with the Japanese government and is traceable back to the farm that reared it, even when it’s sitting on a dinner plate.
Wagyu is – quite rightly – a serious business.
4. In Japan, Wagyu carcasses undergo careful inspection
Standards of Wagyu grading are set by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestries and Fisheries Commission in Japan. Each specimen has an inspection by three separate highly qualified officials from the Japanese Meat Grading Association. As part of the Japanese grading process, samples are taken from particular carcass areas to ensure consistency. Wagyu beef inspection samples typically come from between the sixth and seventh ribs.
Each carcass is assessed and scored according to two factors – yield and overall Grade. Yield is relatively straightforward, while grading is more complex and detailed. The highest award is A5, a highly sought after award exclusively reserved for only the highest quality specimens.
5. Yield grades are about more than just weight
Yield grade confirmed by the inspection process is about more than the animal’s mass, although it has a bearing. To use the label of “Japanese Wagyu,” the animal must weigh no more than 499.9kg at slaughter. Japanese Wagyu are notorious for being compact, stocky animals, well suited to Japan’s farmland and rice fields’ compact style, able to turn quickly in a tight area.
Surprisingly, yield classification occurs before slaughter and processing. It uses a calculation to denote the percentage of meat, fat, and bone the animal contains. The result of the analysis produces an estimate of the amount of harvestable meat in the carcass.
Yield grade brackets are as follows:
- A grade yield denotes at least 72% of the animal is deemed usable
- B grade yield dictates between 69% and 72% of the animal is deemed available for use
- C grade yield is anything that falls below 69% usability
Larger cattle tend to have better quality meat but must still be below that crucial 499.9kg limit. As a general guide, Grade C’s perception is a low standard, grade B is regular, and grade A is superior standard yield.
6. Meat quality is about more than just looks
The quality grade of the meat is not just about how it looks. It takes into account the ratio of marbling, color, fat, and texture of the sample, which are all measured individually and scored as follows:
- The Beef Marbling Score (BMS) – scored between (lowest grade) and 12 (highest quality). Essentially, the more fat, the better (it’s what Wagyu is famous for!). Not surprisingly, the marbling score has its own set of scores
- BMS 1 (average quality)
BMS 2 (good)
BMS 3-4 (very good)
BMS 5-7 (excellent)
BMS 8-12 (exceptional quality)
- The Beef Color Standard (BCS) – scored between 1 (ungraded) and 5 (highest Grade). Mid tones tend to grade a higher score.
- The Beef Fat Standard (BFS) – scored between 1-7 (ungraded) to 1-4 (highest). It’s not just about the percentage fat – it’s the shine too. It should be glossy to help along with that melt in the mouth experience.
- Firmness – inspectors assign a grading anywhere from Inferior to Very Good. Firmness is somewhat open to experience and individual judgment. It is challenging to assess from appearance alone without expertise, but the meat should be firm but tender.
- Texture – inspectors grade texture anywhere between Coarse to Very Fine
7. Overall grading for Wagyu
In Japan, the extensive assessment process finally produces an overall score consisting of a letter and number. The format measures A to C (yield grade), followed by 1 to 5 (for the quality).
A is the highest grade yield, with "1" as the lowest grade quality score.
Extensive assessment, therefore, adds up to an overall score consisting of a number and letter. A5 is the highest possible score and denotes the finest quality, far above the usual standards.
8. Grades are calculated differently in the US
In the US, grades are calculated and awarded in a slightly different way. In America, there is a standardized USDA scale, which runs as follows:
- Prime Grade – ranges from 8 to 11% marbling (“slightly abundant” to “abundant” marbling)
- Choice Grade – ‘Small to moderate marbling.”
- Select Grade – “Slight marbling.”
By comparison, a Japanese Beef Marbling Score (BMS) of 3 contains a minimum of 21% fat. A BMS score of 12 denotes a fat content of at least 57%. The differences between the two scales bring about the question of how and why they are so varied.
9. Why does the US classify Wagyu differently?
So, the US has a different grading system. But why exactly is that? The reasons are interesting. Wagyu produced in Japan are not the same as the Wagyu reared in the US – nowhere near.
To use the label ‘Japanese Wagyu,’ the animals must be born, reared, and raised in a specific region. They even have to be slaughtered and processed at one of a limited number of licensed slaughterhouses to be classified as ‘Japanese Wagyu.’
They also need to produce a unique ten digit identifier (yes, even when they’re sitting on the end of a fork) that will trace them back to the farm where they were born. If that wasn’t enough, they need to support all these claims with a DNA test to prove their heritage.
10. Cultural palates vary
Palates are very different all around the globe – variety is the spice of life, right? Nowhere is that more perfectly and succinctly demonstrated than food. Every region has a culinary gift – from British ‘fish and chips with a cup of tea’ to the finest French Coq au Vin paired with a delicate white wine.
That’s the beauty of cultural variation – and Wagyu is no different. Japan carries and holds the cultural standard, heritage, and tradition of Wagyu beef. Still, it’s essential to recognize preferences around the world of this unique meat.
American diners have a traditional preference for more substantial, ‘beefier’ tasting cuts than Japanese Wagyu offers with its delicate, umami flavor profile and slim cuts. Elements as carcass size do not necessarily translate to a desirable feature worldwide. Countries also develop crossbreeds based around Wagyu to suit these tastes.
All this means a separate grading system can be beneficial. It can serve consumer tastes and crossbreeding programs alike, according to the unique requirements of each region.
11. Australian grading for Wagyu beef
Australia enjoys a thriving herd of Wagyu cattle – the highest number outside of Japan.
As we’ve found out with the US, it may come as a surprise that there is a need to adapt the grading system to suit the region’s cattle.
Australian Wagyu have to tolerate a very different climate, feed, and therefore grading system. There are two prevalent grading system in Australia: Ausmeat and MSA (Meat Standards Australia). Both gradings still produce a grade score, although samples come from between the 10th and 11th ribs of each animal. Score typically range from Silver Label (BMS 6-7), Black Label (BMS 8-9), and Double Black Label (BMS9+).
12. Exclusivity is key for Wagyu beef
We’ve seen that different regions have different grading systems. They even develop crossbred Wagyu herds to take advantage of environmental and cultural differences. But there is another factor: exclusivity.
Highly graded authentic Japanese Wagyu is a commodity in and of itself. It can cost upwards of $60/oz as a starting point. Export bans mean a limited amount of cut meats are available for export from Japan every year. There simply isn’t enough to go around.
All this means that authentic Japanese Wagyu is highly prized and commands an experience only the most prestigious of dines can enjoy.
At A Five Meats, we are proud to be a part of the world of Wagyu beef. See our website for the latest availability – we have exclusive, hand selected cuts, which we are proud to present to our customers. We would be happy to help answer any questions you may have about our meat packs, and we look forward to hearing from you soon!