Originally hailing from Japan, Wagyu is the most most intensely marbled breed of cattle in the world. In Japan, where Wagyu is considered a national treasure, raising this special breed has been done with craft and care over generations of farmers. Wagyu is in now raised and bred in varying degrees of purity across the globe, with Wagyu International estimating there to be 3 million Wagyu of 50% genetics or higher in the world. Japan remains home of the largest number of Wagyu, followed by Australia and the United States.
The original home of Wagyu continues to be the leader for raising this majestic breed. Ninety-six percent of all Fullblood Wagyu in the world is found in Japan, making up the large majority of the country’s beef livestock. As we discussed in our blog post, You Know Wagyu, Now Let’s Talk Tajima, Japanese Wagyu is comprised of four unique strains of cattle - Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled. Consistent with the rest of the world, Japanese Black is the predominant strain, making up over 90% of all cattle in Japan.
In Japan, Japanese Black cattle are classified by the region, or prefecture,in which it is raised. This is similar to Old World Wines, which designate the label of their wine not by the grape (for example Cabernet or Sangiovese) but by region the grapes were grown (i.e. Bordeaux in France or Chianti in Italy).
Within these regions are the homes of the best beef in the world - Kobe, Ohmi, and Matsusaka. Kobe beef, the culinary luxury famous for its intense marbling and texture, hails from the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. As we highlighted in our blog post, What’s the Difference Between Wagyu and Kobe, beef from the Hyogo Prefecture is subject to strict criteria to be eligible for Kobe classification. Only 3,000 cattle are certified as Kobe each year.
Japan uses a very specific and comprehensive grading system which combines a Meat Quality Score (scoring between 1-5 with 5 being the best) and Yield Score (scoring A-C, with A being the best) for an Overall Meat Score.
Meat Quality Score which is based on four factors, including quantity and quality of marbling and color and firmness/texture of meat. The yield score is determined by the estimated percentage of edible cuts. Only Fullblood Wagyu is can receive a Yield Score A.
Japanese scores are used as a benchmark to compare Wagyu around the world. However, Japanese scores aren’t fully understood by consumers outside of Japan. For instance, most people aren’t aware that Japan shifted its scale in 2008 but they continue to use the previous version for reference. What used to be considered a BMS (Beef Marble Score) 6 or 7 is now a BMS 3.
Australia boasts the second highest population of Wagyu in the world, second only to Japan. Of their 100,000 cattle, 18% are Fullblood Wagyu, 12% are Purebred, and 50% are F1, showcasing the largest registered Fullblood Wagyu population outside of Japan.
Australia’s Wagyu program began in 1990 and has evolved into a well-established national industry. Wagyu herds were developed through the acquisition of genetics from Shogo Takeda, genetics from the USA, and an importation of live Fullblood cattle from Japan. Australian Wagyu are predominantly Japanese Black.
Australia uses the AUS-MEAT grading system which ranges from 0 to 9, with 9 being the best. This subjective analysis considers quantity of Intramuscular Fat (IMF, aka marbling) along with distribution and texture of the fat. Australian Fullblood Wagyu averages a 6.8 on this scale, with a 29.2% IMF. Australian F1 Wagyu averages a 4.7 AUS-MEAT sore with an IMF percentage of 19.3%.
Australia exports the majority of their Wagyu beef (almost 85%) worldwide. Within the country, Wagyu has become a fine dining staple and consumer favorite.
The first Wagyu cattle were imported to the U.S. in 1976, two black and two red bulls. Between 1976 and 1997, when Japan put a cattle export ban in place, less than 250 Wagyu were exported from Japan to the U.S., most of which were Japanese Black.
The majority of Wagyu in the U.S. have been used for crossbreeding with Angus and other conventional cattle for F1 (50% Wagyu genetics) Wagyu. This practice is popular in the U.S. and other countries because it has the potential to improve the quality of a standard herd, thus improving the grade of the beef.
In the U.S. we use the UDSA Beef Grading Scale, which is based on the percentage of IMF and analysis of fat distribution and texture. There are three grades; Select, Choice, and Prime, with Prime being the highest. Prime beef demands a higher price than Choice or Select. Only 3% of all beef in the U.S. is graded Prime, but 90% of Wagyu-influenced beef (from cattle with 50% Wagyu genetics or higher) receives the Prime rating.
While the U.S. has significantly less Fullblood Wagyu than Japan and Australia, a population estimated to be under 5,000, it has the highest population of Purebred. Purebred Wagyu have 15/16 Wagyu genetics and are the result of breeding Fullblood Wagyu with crossbred until the genetics are over 90% Wagyu. To learn more about Wagyu Classifications in America, read here.
There are no industry wide statistics on average IMF% of Wagyu in the United States, but at Lone Mountain our Fullblood Wagyu Beef averages a 30% marble content. That's about 3x higher than USDA Prime.
Wagyu is a rising trend in the U.S. with Fullblood offerings featured in select fine dining restaurants and Wagyu-influenced beef available throughout the country.
The Wagyu industry is still quite small in Europe and didn’t begin until the 2000’s. While produced in varying levels of purity throughout the countries, the majority is crossbred with conventional European cattle. There are a few producers focusing on Fullblood Wagyu. The largest association is in Germany
According to Wagyu International, Wagyu cattle are now bred on every continent in the world. Similar to wine, cheese, and other specialty foods, the beef from each continent, country, and rancher will have its own nuanced flavor profiles and qualities. Up for a carnivore challenge? Add “Sample Wagyu from every continent” to your bucket list! And then report back… we’d love to drool over your stories.