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Japanese Beef “Wagyu” but Not From Japan?

2018.10.20

Wagyu is one of the most famous food ingredients from Japan.  It is Japanese Marbled Beef.  The delicate texture is its unique characteristic, which no other beef can match.

Food Import Ban is Finally Lifted

Since early 2001, due to the outbreak of the BSE, many international trade partners banned the import of the beef product Wagyu, from Japan.  The government and the industry tirelessly worked to initiate a check system to secure food safety.

Import bans have been gradually lifted since 2014 by Mexico, New Zealand, Vietnam, Philippines, and the EU.  Taiwan lifted its ban in 2016, causing a major boom in Japanese Wagyu tourism, targeting famous restaurants and butchers.

In May 2018, Australia lifted its ban.  Exporters are very excited as the average consumption per head in this continent is three times more than that of the Japanese market.  However, competition is fiercer and, to their surprise, the biggest challenge happened to come from its own “cousins”.

“WAGYU” Produced in Australia as Competitor

Wagyu, especially Kobe Beef, was always famous as a Japanese delicacy since the late 17th century.  Many brands, Matsuzaka, Oumi, Tajima, and many others continued to produce marbled beef on a relatively small scale, concentrating on the best quality and provenance.

Australian farmers started growing the stock of cattle with Japanese cattle genes since the 1990s.  They regulate themselves to differentiate premium meat by restricting the use of the name, Wagyu, to meat from an animal with over 50% of Japanese Wagyu genes.

As a result, their Wagyu brand, such as Tajima Wagyu from New South Wales, command nearly double the price of standard Angus beef.

Japanese farmers stuck to keeping livestock 100% pure to recognise the product as Wagyu.  They looked after the animals with care, although it is not entirely accurate to say that they feed them with beer and give the massages! Feeds are limited to well-selected crops, grains and dried grass.  The quality has been the pride of Japanese Wagyu brand, and it spoke for itself for many years.

On the other hand, Australian Wagyu cattle freely graze on wild fields.  It makes a significant difference to meat quality.  As a result, Australian Wagyu is closer to Angus Beef, has less fat content yet with a delicate texture, and consumers happily accept it as a premium product, and in many cases, it was more suitable to the taste of locals.

Grasping the World Standard, Seeking the Future Possibilities

Now, Australia is the largest Wagyu producer, exporting over 20,000 tonnes per year (2016), nearly ten times more than Japan, just over 2,700 tonnes in 2017.  The international market balance has completely changed during the lost decade of Japanese beef’s absence.

Added to this, the numbers of Japanese beef farmers and Wagyu livestock are in decline.  Farmers traditionally operated on a small scale, mostly family businesses.  It is also very labour intensive and is not the business that young people would like to enter as careers.

But, some of the younger generation involved in the trade commit themselves to develop the distinctive Japanese Wagyu brand.  It needs collaboration and risk-taking throughout the supply chain.

The meat supply enterprises are moving animals from the southern part of Japan, where there were historically more stock farmers, to Hokkaido, where there is more land available for grazing and feed production. It is a risk worth taking as the cost of feed reduces significantly.

Chefs across the world are coming up with recipes to challenge consumers’ palettes, by using traditional Japanese exotic herbs, citrus and spices such as Oba leaves, Myoga, Yuzu, Wasabi etc., hoping to attract new customers to try and appreciate the quality in full.

Australian Wagyu took the lead in spreading the name Wagyu across the globe by making the taste and texture superior, selling them with a premium price yet not out of reach.  This brand positioning and control enabled a discount supermarket chain, Aldi, to sell Wagyu beef burger patty and a restaurant chain to put Wagyu steak on its menu.

The success of the Australian Wagyu needs to be acknowledged as an excellent foundation for the reentry of the original Wagyu Beef from Japan.  Japanese farmers now have to quickly re-brand their super-premium meat as Japanese Wagyu, and re-position itself as a different ingredient in a separate category.

Many new ideas are developing through a better understanding of international culinary trends. Risk-taking, and maintaining the highest quality, are the keys to the future.

 

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