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Myths & Facts: Japanese and American Wagyu

By Joe Heitzeberg - Co-founder and CEO of Crowd Cow. I'm on Instagram at @jheitzeb.

We've been writing extensively about A5 Wagyu to give you some background on the Japanese beef and its well-earned reputation for rich marbling. One thing that’s become increasingly evident in the course of our research and travels to Japan is the fact that there’s a scary amount of myths out there about A5 Wagyu from Japan.

So we thought we’d do some mythbusting.

SHOP: Kobe Beef from Hyogo, Japan

Japan's iconic, luxurious beef is here — the one and only Kobe Beef

Wagyu is banned in the U.S.

It's true that Wagyu DNA and live animals are permanently banned for export from Japan, but the meat is not. Sometimes there’s confusion because there was a ban on the meat for a while, too, but it ended in 2012 when exports resumed.

However, meat is still regulated under a strict quota and tariff system. You can only buy Japanese Wagyu in the U.S. in extremely limited supply.

As for live animals, there was a blip in the permanent ban between 1975 and 1997, when Japan did allow the export of a handful of animals. Those first few cattle began the seed stock of various breeding programs in the U.S. and beyond. That’s why you might hear -- and rightly so -- that there are Fullblood Wagyu or Purebred Wagyu in the U.S. In fact, there are 26,000 of them (or 0.029% of the total 89.9 million cattle in the nation), and they all have to meet standards set by the American Wagyu Association.

The takeaway is this: 100% (by DNA) Wagyu animals are incredibly rare in the U.S. Authentic Wagyu beef from Japan is rarer.

American Kobe is cheap-ish and everywhere. I should just buy that for the real Japanese beef experience!

First, Kobe and Wagyu aren’t the same thing. We wrote a blog post on the distinction.

Second, the term "American Kobe" is a total crapshoot, and in most cases when you encounter it on a menu at your favorite burger joint, unfortunately means nothing. It’s most certainly not real Kobe beef, which, according to our research, has only ever been served at 9 restaurants in the U.S. (as of July 2016), including the Wynn in Las Vegas, where it’s featured for $880 per pound. Not a typo.

Part of the reason this abuse of the term and marketing confusion has been able to go on so long is the price-prohibitiveness of Wagyu beef (the category into which Kobe falls, since both Kobe and A5 Wagyu beef arise from the Kuroge Washu Wagyu breed). Going for between $200 and $250 a pound at Japanese department stores and on Amazon Japan, few people are buying it. As a result, information about Wagyu beef from Japan is scarce.

The more information that’s put out there about Japanese Wagyu, the more likely it is those mis-labelings and marketing sleight-of-hands will get brought into the light. Keep reading and writing, Wagyu devotees!

If it's labeled "Wagyu", and it's from Japan, you're getting highly marbled, legendary beef.

Not necessarily. The term "Wagyu" (和牛) just means "Japanese Cow". That’s the literal translation. There are four Wagyu breeds that are native to Japan, only one of which deserves much of a reputation for being "special.” It’s called Kuroge Washu.

Only Kuroge Washu Wagyu are genetically predisposed to the fine-grained intramuscular marbling that’s made Japanese beef so famous. All "Kobe Beef" and other top luxury beef brands in Japan are derived exclusively from Kuroge Washu.

It's common for opportunistic importers to sell one of the less valuable breeds -- or even a non-native breed, which falls under the umbrella term Kokusan-gyu (国産牛) -- and label is as "Wagyu" in the U.S. They get a huge markup by (falsely) applying the Wagyu brand, after all. But it’s a total ripoff to the consumer, because no other Japanese breed but Kuroge Washu can achieve A4 or A5 rank.

If it's labeled "Wagyu” and it's from a farm in the USA, you're getting incredibly marbled, exceptional beef.

More often than not, you're getting a pretty ordinary beef, or a cross-breed between Wagyu DNA and something else, like Angus.

Like I said above, only 0.029% of the total U.S. cattle count of 89.9 million qualifies as Fullblood or Purebred Wagyu (which are defined, by the way, as animals whose DNA are traceable to Japanese native breeds at 100% pure or above 93.75% pure, respectively). So it makes good sense that the $26 “Wagyu” hamburger you bought is not actually likely to be from one of those animals.

Instead, you’re probably chomping into a cross-breed, whose DNA percentages are not monitored or enforced -- by anyone. Sometimes you'll see, "F1" which means 50% Wagyu by DNA (i.e., the first cross between Wagyu and something else, like Angus), but again, that’s a voluntary and unregulated labeling program. The most likely scenario when you get a “Wagyu” hamburger at a restaurant, you’re eating meat that has only trace amounts of Wagyu DNA from somewhere far up its family tree.

In Japan, Wagyu cattle are hand-massaged while having beer and sake funneled down their throats, as Mozart plays in the background.

We asked all our producers this very question, and a few of them laughed at us. All unequivocally agreed that it's just a rumor that won't go away.

The cattle do, however, get their hair brushed, and this may be where the "massage" rumor originated. And I guess we can’t vouch for every single cattle rancher in Japan when we say cows never receive an alcoholic boost from time to time. Feed programs among the top Wagyu farmers tend to be closed guarded secrets, so I guess anything is possible. It’s not within the norm, though, our producers assure us. For their part, beer and sake is reserved for the farm staff.

The reason Wagyu is so marbled is because the animals are force-fed.

Nope, again.

We’ve been there to observe the feeding programs at the ranches we’ve partnered with, and we can unequivocally say there’s no force-feeding at any of the farms we work with, ever.

The minimization of animal stress is actually a hallmark of Japanese cattle-raising, and there’s a simple business logic to this: Force-feeding cattle would lead to unhealthy animals and poor-quality meat.

Ruminal acidosis (a condition that can occur if the pH of the cow's stomach changes) can be triggered by excessive feeding, and leads to -- at minimum -- high animal stress, and sometimes causes death. The farms we’re working with proudly talk about their practically non-existent incidence of acidosis.

Because of the scarcity of land in Japan, grazing isn’t possible and cattle are instead raised in “cowsheds,” expansive, open-air barns where they are protected from the elements and can be closely tended to by ranch hands. If you ask any Japanese cattle farmer, this is how it’s always been done in Japan, and they’re extremely proud of how happy and calm their cows are.

"Film everything," they said.

The standard of cleanliness inside the cowsheds is absolutely pristine. The grounds are routinely cleaned and the soft soil and hay in the sheds are replaced frequently. It’s a comfortable place to walk and sleep.

It's all fat! I'm not paying for fat! Where's the beef!?

It's true that A5 Wagyu is among the most marbled beef on the planet, and the fine-grained marbling makes for some of the fattiest beef you can buy.

But it’s good fats. One study from the Japan Livestock Industry Association, cited by CNN, says Wagyu has up to 30% more unsaturated fat than Angus cattle. And it’s those unsaturated fats that makes Wagyu beef so full of rich, umami goodness -- that elusive fifth “primary taste.” They also happen to help prevent heart disease and stroke.

There's a reason that A5 Wagyu from Japan is the most revered steak on the planet -- and it's got everything to do with that fat. So eat up! Enjoy your beautiful, exceptional (and, yes!) fatty A5 Wagyu beef.

A5 Wagyu on Crowd Cow

SHOP: Kobe Beef from Hyogo, Japan

Japan's iconic, luxurious beef is here — the one and only Kobe Beef


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