Japanese wagyu beef is so expensive primarily because of the costs associated with raising wagyu cows. High grade wagyu is also imported, which makes the beef rare compared to domestic breeds, making it pricier than usual.
I’ve worked long enough as a chef to notice that wagyu steaks to go from being a costly delicacy to a popular dish. About a decade ago, our restaurant was selling five wagyu steaks on busy nights. However, in recent times, the number has gone up to about twenty.
In my opinion, this rising popularity of wagyu beef, combined with its lack of availability, definitely adds to the costs.
To find out why is wagyu beef so expensive, read on:
Raising wagyu cows is significantly more costly compared to raising regular beef. In fact, raising wagyu cattle can cost ten times as much as the typical Angus beef.
There are several reasons why wagyu production costs so much. For one, wagyu cows need to be fed for a longer time to fatten them up compared to regular cows. The labor costs and expenses for feed in wagyu cattle farming factor into the final price tag of a wagyu steak.
Another reason is the strict measures wagyu beef farmers have to follow in Japan. Wagyu beef cattle have to be bred according to stringent guidelines set up by the Japanese government to ensure authenticity.
All this plays a part in why wagyu beef is one of the most expensive meats in the world.
The term wagyu literally means meat from a Japanese cow. However, the brand of wagyu beef comes only from a handful of special breeds native to Japan. These include Japanese shorthorn, Japanese brown, Japanese polled, and Japanese black.
The unique marbled fat found on wagyu steak comes only from these four main breeds. There’s a fascinating story behind this.
Wagyu cattle were originally used for rice farming in Japan. The animals were put to work all day on little feed, so they developed more intramuscular fat cells than other breeds of cow.
The result is stunning marbled fat that fetches top dollar in the world’s best restaurants. If you’ve ever tried wagyu beef, you’ll know that this marbled fat melts in your mouth. No other cattle breed can emulate this texture.
It’s not that the cattle industry hasn’t tried to emulate it. There are versions of the Japanese beef, such as Australian wagyu, that’s a result of crossbreeding a purebred Japanese cow with an Angus cow.
The mixture of breeding cattle has more intramuscular fat cells than regular beef. However, it’s not as much as what you see in authentic wagyu beef.
As someone who has tried varieties of wagyu, I’d say the mixed breed wagyu beef has more muscle fibers similar to regular red meats, so you can eat more.
However, authentic wagyu beef is very tender and has a signature buttery taste that’s totally indulgent.
These superior genetics of intramuscular fat makes real wagyu beef pricier.
The rich marbling that you see on wagyu steak is not just the result of genetics. It’s also the result of careful feeding that follows exacting guidelines.
Wagyu calves stay with breeding farmers until they are three years old, which is longer than Angus calves. The feeding process begins during calfhood. Farmers feed wagyu calves expensive milk replacer to start their fattening process.
Once they are old enough, the wagyu cows are sent to auction and ultimately fattening farms. At the fattening farm, the wagyu beef are fed a special high energy concentrated feed made up of a mixture of wheat, grain, and rice.
The animals are put in pens and fed until they reach an ideal body mass index with at least fifty percent fat. Only pregnant cows are allowed to graze so that the extra nutrition doesn’t interfere with the buildup of fat cells.
The high energy concentrate in their diet is what gives wagyu beef its famous marbling. Because of their genetics as mentioned, the calories remain in the muscle fiber, rather than under the skin.
Wagyu beef also has a healthier saturated fat ratio compared to other red meats. This is all thanks to their special diet.
This high energy concentrate doesn’t come cheap. The ingredients are mostly imported, making the feed very expensive compared to regular cattle feed. This increases the overhead for wagyu farms.
Not to mention, there are some varieties of wagyu, like olive wagyu, that are raised on a feed that’s even more special than usual.
Olive wagyu beef is so-called because the cows are fed olive pits to make their meat even more tender and marbled. Needless to say, this type of wagyu beef comes with a very high price tag.
Japan’s security surrounding certification of wagyu beef is another unusual factor that contributes to its high cost. As it turns out, Japan has elaborate genetic testing guidelines per single cow.
When a wagyu calf is born, the Japanese National Livestock Breeding Center logs its nose print, breeds, inheritance information going back to grandparents, and feedlot.
Then, the calves are assigned a unique identification code so that the beef they provide is certified. Additional data such as the distributor, processing plant, exporter, and importer are also included in the database.
All this protects wagyu beef from fraudulent suppliers. On the downside, it also adds extra costs to wagyu steaks.
You may have noticed that wagyu beef in stores and restaurants are graded from A3 to A5, with A5 being the most expensive and highest quality meat.
This rating system is based on two things: the meat yield and quality.
Wagyu beef is graded from A to C based on how much meat the carcass of a cow provides. A grade provides the most yield.
The letter grade is numbered based on quality, which is determined by factors such as marbling, texture, color and firmness. The higher the rating, the higher the quality of the meat.
Japan takes wagyu beef rating seriously. Wagyu raters have to undergo years of training.
I met several wagyu raters when I was training in Japan and was surprised to find how well paid they were. Being a wagyu rater is a respected profession.
Ultimately, having a well-paid staff rate your meat means paying more for the steak.
Wagyu beef is not monolithic. The meat varies depending on the region it comes from, and as such, the price tag as well. Notably, wagyu beef from the Kobe region of Japan tends to be the most expensive beef in the world.
Kobe beef is raised and slaughtered in the Kobe prefecture. It comes only from castrated bulls, while other wagyu cuts come from virgin female cows.
Kobe beef farmers have additional guidelines to follow that make it quite expensive even compared to other types of wagyu beef. Besides, as it’s sourced from only one region, there are only so many kobe beef cuts that Japan can export. This rarity also contributes to its price.
All real wagyu beef that you find outside Japan is imported. That means import prices play another major role in determining the final cost of a wagyu steak.
In the United States, there are meat import quotas that limit how much meat sellers can bring into the country, creating artificial scarcity. Little details like this in international trade eventually drive up costs for consumers.
The qualities that makes wagyu beef so expensive has a lot to do with the unique texture, marbling and quality of the meat.
The rules, regulations, and farming practices ensure this does not come cheap.
Last but not least, things like tariffs also play a major role in why wagyu steak is so expensive and delicious.