Japanese-bred Wagyu cattle offer one of the most highly-sought cuts of meat for consumers. This tender and marbled meat is known for its robust flavors and melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Wagyu beef is so expensive for a variety of factors that make it top-of-the-line meat.
Wagyu cattle are traditionally raised in Japan and imported to other countries. The environment and dedicated care that cattle receive are specialized over longer periods, requiring intensive labor and skilled farmers and regulators. The tender and marbleized meat is certified for high-yield and grade-A results. These combined factors offer a lower supply, yet higher demand for the product, inducing higher expensive costs.
Let’s explore these reasons in more detail.
1. Imported Japanese-Bred Beef
Wagyu beef comes from Japan. In the Japanese language, “wa” means “Japanese”, and “gyu” means “cow”.
While the United States and Australia raise a hybrid version of Wagyu, Japanese cattle are authentic thoroughbreds that consist of Black, Brown, Polled, and Shorthorn breeds.
Wagyu beef is perishable, so it needs to be exported and shipped carefully in flash-frozen vacuum-sealed packages with dry ice.
There is a quota of 441,000 pounds of Japanese beef that can be imported to the United States. After that is filled, there is an applied import tax of 26.4%.
Wagyu cattle are worth $30,000, approximately $200 per pound, at auction. This is 40 times more than an auctioned cow in the United States. A single steak can cost from $120 to $300.
When you factor in international (and local) shipping fees, along with special packaging, the overall cost of the beef rises significantly.
2. Geography Of Japan
80% of Japan is covered by mountains, and the country is smaller than California. As a result, there is less land.
The mountains create long and narrow valleys, which are used for agriculture and living.
Feedlots for cattle will have from 10 to 100 cattle, which contains far less than those in the United States, which have thousands of cattle.
A lower population of cattle means there is less product. As a result, the cost will be higher to provide meat to consumers.
3. Feeding Schedule
Japanese farmers can carefully monitor and care for their cattle with greater attention since they have smaller herds.
Wagyu cattle’s feeding schedule is longer than other cattle. Their intramuscular marbling occurs between 26 to 36 months before slaughter. Other cattle are typically slaughtered at 12 to 18 months.
As a result, the Wagyu cattle are fed for twice as long as other breeds of cattle.
The consumption of a healthy diet of nutrition that includes protein and hay over time leads to higher costs of care for the cattle, raising costs for the final product.
4. Low-Stress Environment
Cattle farmers provide a low-stress environment for their cows.
Stressful conditions could include:
- Standing for long hours in restricted spaces
- Exposure to new smells or noises
- Mixing in with other cattle that changes social hierarchies
- Extreme climate conditions
- Too much time in holding pens before slaughter
- Increased physical activity
- Injury and bruising
As a result, stressful situations can lead to a rise in stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. These have been found to negatively affect meat tenderness and color.
To reduce stress for the cattle, Wagyu farmers will take care to not expose them to noisy environments, and keep the herd consistent.
They will check them frequently for signs of distress, injury, needs for food and water, and so on.
Calves will wear warming “jackets”, are hand-fed milk replacements, and fed high-energy feed. They may also brush them down with a stiff brush to increase blood circulation, much like a massage.
This attention from farmers requires labor, supplies, and time, which increases the money needed for the cows’ overall care.
5. Marbling And Texture
Wagyu beef is known for its distinctive marbling.
Marbling is indicative of the visible layers of fat in the muscle. This higher rate of marbling shows that it contains more fatty acids (with healthy Omegas 3 and 6) than other beef cattle.
As a result, consumed Wagyu beef is juicier and tender, releasing more flavor, often enjoyed in rare preparations that melt in the mouth.
This flavor profile makes Wagyu meat popular, which affects pricing due to higher demand.
6. Grade-A Certification Process
Wagyu beef is certified as Grade-A. Much like a student’s report card, a grade of “A” is the best or top score.
This type of certification means that the meat meets the best standards in the following categories:
- Fresh and uncooked
- Skeletal maturity
- Amount of usable meat (yield)
High standards mean high levels of attention to detail and care, requiring higher costs to ensure these take place.
Yield refers to how much meat can be harvested from the carcass. A level “5” indicates the highest amount of yield.
Slaughtered Wagyu cattle with yields of 3 to 5 are sold in the Japanese market.
If the yield is undesired, this can count as profit loss. To maintain high levels, money is spent to ensure the cows are healthy and productive.
8. Wagyu Authentication And Genetics
The Japanese National Livestock Breeding Center uses a system to trace their cattle to protect the industry and consumers of the meat.
Farmers raise cattle with pure genetic bloodlines and collect data to prove the authenticity of their animals.
Each calf receives an identification number and has a noseprint (like a fingerprint) taken, along with the collection of other birth data.
This process of security and authenticity to track Wagyu animals involves time, paperwork, and money.
The fertility rate in Japan is not steadily increasing, which lowers the future generation of potential workers.
Wagyu farming is a niche industry that requires specialized work.
The cost of labor for Japanese farmers to care for their cattle and make daily living wages is high and extensive.
Regulators to track and verify the authenticity and grade the quality and yield of meat cost money.
These combined with the labor needed to slaughter, package, and ship the meat is going to contribute to the overall cost.
10. Supply And Demand
With the low herd numbers and the factors to create the desired type of meat, the supply is low and the demand is high.
Basic economics shows that in this kind of situation, the prices will be higher.
Consumers are willing to pay more for tender, marbleized Wagyu beef. The cost of this meat is expensive due to many factors.
This beef comes from cattle that are regulated as a thoroughbred. The cattle receive extended periods of skilled care and feeding to offer excellent products.
The meat is raised in smaller herds, which results in less stock. The meat is then processed to ensure that it is of the highest quality before being sold and imported to other countries.
All of these factors combined with the labor to raise and regulate Wagyu cattle, raise the cost of the final product. This final cost is considerably higher than other beef products.