Why Is Wagyu Beef So Expensive?

Wagyu beef is at the top of the list in terms of luxury and exclusivity.  Restaurants around the world search exhaustively for even the smallest quantities of the finest quality Wagyu, with top chefs all vying for the ultimate dining experience to offer their most discerning customers. 

With this in mind, it’s relatively easy to deduct that Wagyu is expensive – very expensive.  But why does it cost so much? Let A Five Meats take you on a mini tour of our world of Wagyu to find out more about how and why it is the most sought after meat in the world. 

Why Is Wagyu So Rare?

Wagyu beef comes from one of only four breeds: Japanese Black, Japanese Polled (a crossbreed), Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Brown.  To be named as Wagyu from a specific area (Kobe beef, for example), the cattle must be raised and slaughtered in the same province.  Also, there are only a select few abattoirs licensed to process that particular breed to produce Wagyu cuts.

Related: Differences Between Australian, Japanese and American Wagyu Beef

There are herds outside of Japan, but the vast majority are crossbreeds.  Crossbreeding can carry its advantages, but it cannot be called authentic Japanese Wagyu.  So, Wagyu is by its very nature, limited and exclusive – add to this the fact that only around 10% of genuine Kobe Wagyu reaches export from Japan, and the picture becomes a little clearer. 

How Are Wagyu Cattle Reared?

A world of mystery and myth surrounds Wagyu rearing.  Perfected in Japan over thousands of years, each farm – even those outside of Japan – has its unique methods, feed, and routines for their animals.  The dedication required is immense, as is the cost, with closely guarded skills handed down through the generations.

There are several elements to the rearing of cattle, aside from bloodline authenticity and geographical concerns.  The environment and climate play a part, as does feed, length of grazing time, and even stress.  Wagyu all graze for at least twice as long as regular cattle – around three years or more, compared to just eighteen months for ‘normal’ herds.  As a result, this means they have more time to lay down fats (more on that later), which are unique in their own right. 

Wagyu diet consists of local grasses from grazing (which vary according to the region and climate, so also impact the taste of the meat), along with unique feed formula.  No one knows for sure what goes into a Japanese Wagyu feed – it’s a trade secret – but generally, it consists of rice, wheat, and hay.  Access to clean, fresh water at all times is essential.

Related: How To Tell The Difference Between Real And Fake Wagyu Beef

Let’s talk about stress.  We, as humans, are fortunate enough to be aware of stress and the impact it has on our physical and mental health, with a wealth of help out there for the tough times.  As it happens, Wagyu also have their very own welfare suite – the farmer.  All stress must be eradicated from a Wagyu cow’s life – why? Because stress burns calories - raised heart rate in a fight or flight situation and the hormones that are flying around! 

Burnt calories mean less tasty fats building up in those precious muscle fibers – and stressed animals don’t breed well or taste that great.  Even the slightest hint of discomfort, tension, or distress is dealt with immediately – be it through the separation of animals that don’t get on, or just an itch they can’t scratch.  The problem disappears, no questions asked. 

What Is Special About Wagyu Meat?

The golden question.  In terms of taste, it’s all about the fat.  It accumulates within the muscle fibers, rather than around them, like standard cattle. These fats are called intramuscular fats (also known as IMF).  The visual effects are striking – the meat is pale pink, almost iridescent in appearance.  The fats are laid in such a way that they have the appearance of tiny dots (almost like a pinhead or smaller), connected by intricate lines of fine marbling – giving the classic Wagyu webbed appearance.

Upon cooking, these fats melt and are drawn into the fibers of the meat, resulting in a succulent, juicy mouthfeel.  One of the unique characteristics of Wagyu is that it feels like it melts in the mouth, and with the fats having a lower than body temperature melting point, it is absolutely true.  The taste of the meat is almost buttery in its richness, and the aromas are exquisite, producing a dining experience like no other.

Presentation of Wagyu is in smaller servings than conventional cuts – this is because only a tiny amount is enough to satisfy due to the richness of the meat.  Another factor is where the meat has come from on the cow.  The more sedentary muscles produce a softer texture, and the harder working muscles making a firmer but more flavorful meat.  These more muscular cuts tend to be thinly sliced and served with slightly crisped edges, or used for barbecues on a low and slow basis.  While expensive, Wagyu is incredibly versatile and suits a variety of occasions. 

What Are The Different Grades Of Wagyu?

After the successful breeding, raising, and processing of a Wagyu animal, there is another critical stage to get through - grading.   As you may expect, grading is an incredibly stringent, heavily regulated, and specialized process, particularly in Japan.  Although Wagyu bred outside of Japan is still graded, the approaches tend to differ slightly, but all focus on meat quality, with Japan being the strictest of all. 

Two measures calculate the grade, in addition to the bloodline requirements mentioned earlier.  These are:

  • The yield of the animal ranges from grade A to grade C
    • A grade yield must produce 72%+ of the animal as usable
    • B grade yield is 69% between 72% of the animal usable
    • C grade yield covers anything below 69%
  • The grade of the meat itself scored from 1 to 5, using the following criteria:
    • The Beef Marbling Score (BMS) – ranges from 1 (lowest) to 12 (highest)
    • The Beef Color Standard (BCS) – ranges in score from 1 (ungraded) to 5 (highest)
    • The Beef Fat Standard (BFS) – scores range from 1-7 (ungraded) to 1-4 (highest)
    • Firmness – graded anywhere from Inferior to Very Good
    • Texture – assigned a grade from Coarse to Very Fine

 To be deemed an ‘A5 quality’ (i.e., the best), Wagyu meat must meet all the following standards, without exception:

  • A grade yield (B or C are not sufficient for an A5 grading)
  • A Beef Marbling Score (BMS) ranging between 8 and 12
  • A Beef Color Standard (BCS) score between 3 and 5
  • A Beef Fat Standard (BFS) of between 1 and 4
  • Firmness must score Very Good – any less does not qualify for an A5 standard
  • The texture should score as Very Fine – anything under does not qualify for A5 standard
  • The animal must not weigh any more than 499.9kg at the point of slaughter

There are slight differences in Wagyu from other areas of the world.  For example, in Australia, the grading ranges from a marbling score from 0 to 9+, then into three categories: Silver Label (marbling score of 6-7), Black Label (marbling score 8-9), and Double Black Label (marbling scored at 9+, the highest grade).

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

The inspectors themselves are also very special in their own right.  In Japan, Wagyu inspectors train for a minimum of three years and command incredibly high respect.  Each Japanese Wagyu goes through inspection by three different assessors before a grade is assigned, to preserve the quality and heritage of this exceptional meat.

Every Wagyu cut is assigned a unique ID number. It carries a certificate of authenticity, which enables every cut to be traced from the dining table back to the farm that reared the animal.  With only a very few restaurants allowed a permit from the Japanese government to sell Wagyu around the world, it is incredibly scarce.

How Healthy Is Wagyu Beef?

Another factor that makes Wagyu beef so exclusive and unique is the health benefits it brings.  In short, it is the healthiest meat humans can consume – we promise that’s no exaggeration.  The science speaks for itself.

Just a few of the benefits are:

  • Wagyu has the lowest salt content when compared to fish, pork, venison, chicken, and turkey. It contains a tiny 0.12g per 100g.
  • The overall cholesterol content of Wagyu is 20% lower than standard beef
  • Wagyu contains a staggering 63 times the monounsaturated fats than are present in fish
  • The overall cholesterol level in Wagyu is 22% lower than pork, at just 70mg per 100 grams.

We’ve almost all heard of monounsaturated fats, but its important to explain what they do.  Essentially, there are two types of cholesterol: the good stuff (HDL cholesterol), and the bad stuff (LDL cholesterol).  In a nutshell, the ‘bad cholesterol’ – LDL – is a lazy protein.  It doesn’t bother to take the cholesterol all the way over to your liver for processing. It just dumps it in your arteries.  Over time, the dumped cholesterol builds up and contributes to heart attacks, strokes, and heart disease, to name a few delights.

Related: Why Is Wagyu Beef Healthier Than Other Meats?

The ‘good’ cholesterol – HDL – is a harder working protein, which takes the cholesterol to your liver for safe processing.  As in, it doesn’t get lazy and dump it anywhere near your heart to block everything up.  So, HDL is good.  LDL is bad. 

Monounsaturated fats actively lower the amount of LDL cholesterol that’s flying around in your bloodstream.  In other words, Wagyu is 63 times better at reducing the levels of harmful LDL cholesterol in your body than fish.  It’s clever stuff.

Let’s bring all of this together: generations of wisdom, care, and dedication for every cow.  Wagyu cattle have carefully controlled, long term rearing and grazing, with an absolutely stress-free environment for every animal.  Heavily regulated and thoroughly inspected, with a stringent heritage and proven authenticity in every single cut. 

Not only that, Wagyu is incredibly rare (there are no livestock exports from Japan, only carcasses), with a unique taste and texture. Only a few restaurants have permits to sell authentic Wagyu around the world.  The picture now comes together – we can see precisely why Wagyu is so expensive.  Enjoying Wagyu is a remarkable experience – the culmination of years of care, which speaks for itself with every succulent bite. 

A Five Meats are proud to present the finest Wagyu – we have traveled the world to select the pinnacle in Wagyu meat, to share our passion with you.  Head on over to our website to explore our range of Wagyu and meat selections.  We can despatch the freshest Wagyu directly to your door, chilled – never frozen.  

We’d love to hear from you, and can’t wait to be part of your journey into the beautiful world of Wagyu!