Prized marbled wagyu at crossroads as industry shifts focus to fat quality
Evaluating wagyu beef for its quality of fat, rather than its quantity, is a growing trend in the livestock industry.
At Japan’s largest wagyu fair, held in October, a new category was established to focus on “fat quality,” which is believed to be the key to taste and tenderness.
Behind the move is saturation of market for top-rated wagyu across the country as a result of the pursuit for high-end meat, which has made it difficult for producers to differentiate themselves.
With the graying of the population and increasing health consciousness, a growing number of consumers are preferring lean meat. Meanwhile, knowledge about how to fatten cows to achieve high-fat quality meat has not been established, and producers are searching for ways to meet the growing demand.
In early October, a national wagyu contest that takes place once every five years, and is dubbed the Wagyu Olympics, was held in Kagoshima Prefecture.
When Kosuke Sato, 41, from the town of Takachiho in Miyazaki Prefecture, won the highest bid — ¥100,000 per kilogram — for his carcass in the beef cattle section, the 126 meat dealers from around the country burst into applause and groans. The winning bid was about 12 times higher than the average unit price of 166 carcasses presented from 41 prefectures.
The most notable change in the latest event was the creation of a “fat quality” category for evaluation.
Fat quality, which cannot be judged by appearance alone, had a low score allocation until the previous contest, but it was judged on the same level as “meat quantity” and “meat quality” at the latest event. The creation of the new category symbolized a shift from the quantity of fat to its quality, and away from an emphasis on fat marbling.
A team of three producers from Miyazaki Prefecture, including Sato, won the top prize for their three carcasses and also received the prime minister’s award. The carcass that was auctioned off at ¥100,000 was one of the three, and it marked the highest score in the fat quality category.
Fat quality is mainly judged by the percentage of monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) in the fat. High marks are given to meat containing a higher ratio of MUFAs such as oleic acid, which has a low melting point that creates a melt-in-your-mouth texture. It is also said to help control neutral fat and cholesterol levels in the blood.
Since the liberalization of beef imports in 1991, the wagyu industry has been pursing high-end beef in order to compete with products from overseas.
Beef prices are linked to meat ratings, such as “A5” and “A4,” and cattle with more marbled fat and more meat tend to be highly valued and sold at higher prices. Over the years, farmers have been working to produce wagyu beef with the best marbling.
However, according to the Japan Meat Grading Association, the highest A5 grade took the biggest share among all grades for the first time in 2018, and it expanded to 50.3% in the period from January to August this year, making it difficult to establish the value of wagyu as a brand. As a result of the concentrated use of bulls that can produce offspring with marbled fat, inbreeding has expanded and genetic diversity is being lost.
Meanwhile, consumer demand has been changing over the past 30 years, with an increasing number of people preferring red meat. Although wagyu exports hit record highs in terms of both volume and value in 2021, the industry is facing the need to respond to diversifying preferences.
Fumio Mukai, chairman of the Kyoto-based Wagyu Registry Association, which runs the Wagyu Olympics, pointed out the challenges faced by dealers who have relied on the visual grading system to evaluate beef.
“There is a gap between the market’s sense of value and (the producers’) moves to improve the quality of wagyu,” Mukai said during a news conference after the event, adding that the beef industry needs to come up with ways to convey the quality to consumers.
However, ways to improve fat quality and raise cattle that produce such meat haven’t been established. Sato, who won the top award at this year’s competition, also says he is still in the trial-and-error stage. “We tried not to stress the cows, by feeding them any time they needed. But we’re still seeing how it goes,” he said.
The domestic environment surrounding wagyu production is becoming increasingly challenging. Prices of grain feed, most of which comes from overseas, have skyrocketed due to the Russia-Ukraine war and the weak yen.
Calf prices have fallen because fattening farmers, suffering from increased production costs, are reluctant to buy them. For sustainable wagyu production, farmers need to cut feed costs.
Takashi Nakagawa, associate professor of agricultural economics and management at Nakamura Gakuen University who is well-versed on wagyu distribution, points out that consumers are increasingly having doubts about marbled meat amid growing environmental and health consciousness worldwide.
To promote a shift to producing wagyu meat with quality fat, Nakagawa says a new standard that replaces the current grading system must be made known to consumers. “A system that will also benefit producers is needed,” he said.