A History of Wagyu Beef - Infographic

A History of Wagyu Beef - Infographic

January 11, 2018


History of Wagyu Beef

History of Wagyu Beef InfographicClick to enlarge the thumbnail at left or any image in the article to enlarge and see the full infographic.

Wagyu beef is an emerging trend with gourmet chefs and consumers around the US, but the little-known story of this prized meat spans continents and hundreds of years. Now celebrated around the world, certain lines of Wagyu are considered the best and most expensive beef one can buy. This is the story of Wagyu.

Originally, Wagyu were Japanese draft animals and used in agriculture, given their good energy and high endurance. These traits are due to the high percentage of intramuscular fat (IMF), which is what makes Wagyu beef so delicious and special.

There are four modern breeds of Wagyu in Japan—Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorned. In Japan, 90% of the Wagyu are of the Black breed. There are no Poll or Shorthorned bred outside of Japan.

Wagyu Cattle Come To The US

Wagyu cattle first came to the U.S. from Japan in 1976, primarily for crossbreeding with other cattle, such as Angus. Only four bulls made the journey, and it wasn't until the 1990s that more Wagyu followed.

History of Wagyu Cattle in the US

In 1997, though, Japan declared the Wagyu breed a living national treasure and placed a ban on exports. Between the first cattle in 1976 and the export ban in 1997, less than 200 Wagyu were exported to the United States.

Beef Exported To Japan

Somewhat ironically, after the first crossbreeding of the Wagyu in 1976, ranchers sold most of this high quality beef back to Japan. In fact, most of the beef was exported to Japan up until 2003. The discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, halted export and import of beef to and from Japan and the US. Because of this, domestic consumption of the Wagyu breed has only increased fairly recently.

Still A Rare Breed

Although The American Wagyu Association estimates that there are 30,000 Wagyu-influenced cattle in America, due to crossbreeding, fewer than 5,000 are 100% Fullblood Wagyu. 100% Fullblood Wagyu is defined as Wagyu cattle that maintains an unadulterated bloodline, with absolutely no crossbreeding in its genetics, and is directly traceable back to Japanese ancestry. The rest are what are known as “percentage” Wagyu.

Wagyu Numbers in the US

There are guidelines established as to what can be called Wagyu beef, and what other percentages are. In order to be considered Fullblood Wagyu, it must not only be 100% pure Wagyu, but must also be genetically certified to not have any crossbreeding in its lineage. On the other hand, cattle with as little as 50% Wagyu can be called Wagyu. This is the most common type in the United States, but there are higher grades as well. For instance there can be 75% Crossbred Wagyu, known as F2, and there can be Purebred Wagyu which is 93.75% Wagyu genetics. The higher the percentage, the more prevalent the inherent qualites of Wagyu are, such as intense marbling, which gives the beef the tenderness and flavor its famed for. 

Wagyu Is [Beyond] Prime Beef

Here in the United States, we have a beef grading scale defined by the US Department of Agriculture. The main three grades are Select, Choice, and Prime. Select is the most common (most meat is graded as Select), and Choice follows at number 2.

Wagyu beef is categorized as “prime,” but that doesn't quite do it justice. Of all the beef produced in the U.S., only 3% is graded as prime, based on the marbling of the meat. 100% Fullblood Wagyu, though, can have marbling levels 2–5 times higher than the highest level considered in USDA grading; Wagyu is literally off the chart.

Grading Scale of Beef in the US

We don't always consider where our food comes from, but there is a long, rich history behing Wagyu beef in particular. From their history in Japan to their growing popularity in America, there's a lot that has gone into making some of the most delicious beef in the world.

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