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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

WHY IS JAPANESE WAGYU THE BEST BEEF IN THE WORLD?

If you wish to read details regarding the ultimate steak, click on THE BEST BEEF IN THE WORLD, posted earlier this year.   CNN had an excellent summary last year.   Today, I will focus on how Japanese Wagyu Beef came to be and reasons why it is considered to be supreme.

Yes, as a promoter of sustainability, I do pause when I have a steak, for there are issues related to resource consumption, the environment and even global warming.  Then there is that matter of health.  However, while I pontificate about global warming, I do have a ridiculous carbon footprint, as my 24-day Circle Pacific Adventure 2016 reveals.  Thus, while I sincerely try to find solutions for Planet Earth and Humanity, I remain human and perhaps overindulge more than I should.  Sorry for not being perfect.

The best beef in the world comes from Japan and the best beef in Japan comes from Miyazaki.  It took me 12 hours to catch a train, most on two Shinkansens (bullet trains), transferring in Osaka.  The distance is 542 air miles, and an airplane takes all of an hour to get there.  Driving?  15 hours.  No one in Japan trains to Miyazaki from Tokyo.  I'm the only one who does this, mostly because I enjoy train rides and I purchase the one week Green Car Class Japan Rail Pass for around $350.  This would also be about the cost of a one way train ride from Tokyo to Miyazaki for those living here, so I then have six days to travel anywhere I want on Japan Railway, including a few ferries.

People in Japan don't eat much red meat.  They are second to Chile as consumers of seafood:


They generally can't afford the A5 (highest rated) Japanese Wagyu, so are more likely to consume imported beef.

Okay, so back to my history of beef in Japan.  If you Google, compare Japanese Wagyu to American Prime Beef, your links will first tell you that American Wagyu Beef is mostly Prime, and that the American version is inferior to that from Japan.  Australia and the UK also produce wagyu, but they are about equal to American.  To the left:  Japanese Wagyu (top), British Wagyu (middle) and British crossbred wagyu (bottom).

Way back in 1854 when the Treaty of Peace and Amity was signed between the United States and Empire of Japan, opening the country to foreigners, there was a social taboo in Japan about eating meat.  Nothing much to do with religion, although Buddhist priests did generally prohibit the eating of four legged animals.  Cattle were treated like members of the family.

Let me quote from the article that provided the above photo:

It’s all about fat. Wagyu meat comes from a group of Japanese breeds revered for an incredibly high level of fat marbling. Where the best Western beef has white streaks running through it, Japanese wagyu is more fat than flesh, a slab of white with a splattering of pink. In fact, never mind marble, if we were talking worktops, I’d say a stippled granite.
And it’s not just any fat – this is a soft fat with a low melting point, due in part to its high proportion of mono unsaturated fats, to go along with high levels of omega 3 and 6. Which, yes, means that it is probably healthier fat than the regular saturated kind, although in these fat-friendly days there are those who claim that saturated fat should never have been demonised anyway.
Incidentally, that chunk calculates to around $200/pound.

So how did Japan become the world leader in beef production?  To begin with, Wagyu loosely means Japanese cow.  Well, the Japanese breed has been around for 2000 years, but only for farm and labor work.  In 1868 2,600 heads were imported over a decade period from Europe, mostly British.  This cross-breeding resulted in four kinds of Japanese Wagyu, with the black one to the left dominant.  As recently as 1957 they were still used on farms, but mechanization caused a shift to consumption, and a marbling index was introduced to improve breeding.

Nothing new, for this practice has been going on for centuries, but high marbled cattle continued to be treated well:  sheds were well ventilated and floor covered with saw dust; fresh water was adequately provided, exercise was not encouraged, and brushing was enhanced to improve blood circulation.  Sake and beer were offered to relieve stress and stimulate appetite.  The animal is never exposed to stress.  High fiber foods are provide for prolonged periods, where the average daily weight gain is modest, thus ensuring for the deposition of marbling.  In general Japanese Wagyu cattle are slaughtered at up to the age 3, whereas around the world a little more than half that.  One particularly interesting result is that a lot more of the cuts can be sold at high prices, even Chuck.  I have purchased only fat for $10/pound.


The scale above explains the Japanese Wagyu quality:  A grade is best, then B, C, commercial, utility, cutter and canner.  The number reflects the marble scaling.  Thus, A5 is the ultimate.

This family operation is more and more shifting to mass production, for there were 53,000 breeders in 2013 and each year this number slips by 5% because the younger generation moves on to other things and feed prices keep rising.  There were 3 million head of cattle in 1995, and the number is now slightly less.

In 2001 Miyazaki in particular was hit by an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease, and there was mandatory elimination to eradicate the problem.  But they recovered well, for recent competitions tend to rate beef from this part of the country as the best.  

So Japanese Wagyu is not a product that that has been around for millennia.  What you see in stores today only came about during the past decade or two or three.  Plus, the high cost and diminishing production, with more and more competition, means that the the $80/pound you now pay in a high-end butcher shop for genuine Japanese Wagyu Beef could well drop by more than a half soon to only $40/pound.  But when was the last time you bought good beef for $20/pound?


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