Despite its rarity and value, it seems every restaurant in town has Wagyu beef on its menu. So when is Wagyu not really Wagyu?
When is Wagyu not Wagyu? That is the question the Wagyu Association of Australia and its members have been debating. With increasing demand for the uniquely flavoured and pricey gourmet meat, and restaurants everywhere now seeming to feature the breed in their menus, there are calls by some in the industry to provide a certification system that notes the difference between full-blood Wagyu and cross-breeds.
The Association last year put a certification model to its members but the decision was made not to proceed with a vote at that time. Executive officer Steve Bennett, who joined the organisation after the initial proposal was developed, says a new approach has been adopted and if there is support, there will be renewed dialogue with membership into the development of such a scheme. “We register animals and have the most advanced requirement for DNA parent verification, but there’s no system for certifying produce—in other words, meat,” Bennett explains.
Bennett, who spoke to Restaurant & Catering magazine in the lead-up to this year’s Wagyu Association annual conference in September, believes a truth-in-labelling scheme could be to the benefit of all Wagyu producers, customers and ultimately the robustness and increasing success of the industry. He says in Japan, carcasses can only be called Wagyu if they are 100 per cent Wagyu. In Australia, first-cross carcasses comprising at least 50 per cent are called F1. Purebred is a grade where the percentage reaches 93 per cent and the term full-blood is applied to 100 per cent. “The quality of 50 per cent Wagyu carcass is so good that there’s a demand for it, but we’re looking at a system that would tell people if it’s 50 per cent Wagyu or 100 per cent Wagyu or in-between,” Bennett says.
Demand for Wagyu has been growing, with the Wagyu Association of Australia currently experiencing peak demand with 250 members. Bennett attributes the increased demand for Wagyu to greater customer awareness globally, with Australia exporting some 85 per cent of its produce. The association includes international members from countries such as the United States, and the
association is doing some cutting-edge work in the area of Wagyu genetics and selecting for superior meat qualities.
Wagyu genetics have only been available in Australia since 1990 and the knowledge gap outside of Japan is likely to continue for some time. The flavour of full-blood may not suit everyone’s palate. Bennett points to the fact that although a full-blood Wagyu won the most recent prestigious RNA Branded Beef Competition, the previous two years the competition run by the Royal National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland was won by first-cross varieties.
“The quality of 50 per cent wagyu carcass is so good that there’s a demand for it, but we’re looking at a system that would tell people if it’s 50 per cent wagyu or something in-between.” Steve Bennett, Excecutive Officer, AWA
Even for food connoisseurs, detecting full-blood varieties can be difficult. The price does not always give the full picture, since grain-feeding is the most expensive way to breed Wagyu. Full-blood Wagyu can be finished by some 500 days (and can be typically grain-fed from 10 months), as compared to F1, which are only fed about 350 days but still take much longer than raising standard beef cattle, which are finished on a high-grain ration for about 100 days. Grain-fed F1 Wagyu, despite only maturing for some 250 days, may cost more than full-blood varieties that are grass-fed—the later rearing method of which is growing in popularity. But it is the melting temperature of the fat, and the texture which can be granular, that provide some differences—with the fat in full-blood wagyu melting at a temperature of no more than 30 degrees Celsius, or less than the temperature in your mouth, and it is sweet-tasting. Despite this, grass-fed Wagyu, which average 36 months at slaughter, may not have as a high a marbling score even compared to some cross-bred grain-fed Wagyu.
Neil Prentice, a full-blood grass-fed Wagyu producer and winemaker in the family business Moondarra, started raising Wagyu that is grass-fed as a way of providing an even more distinctive flavour, reflecting regional variations. He says such is the lack of clarity in marketing currently is such that even many restaurateurs may not be aware when they are buying Wagyu that is not full-blood. “About 90 per cent of Wagyu sold in Australia isn’t full-blood,” he says.
Prentice believes that without transparency, the reputation of Wagyu is at stake. “People are going away from restaurants having a disappointing experience and being turned off from eating Wagyu,” he says. Price can be an indication, Prentice says, and if it sounds too cheap to be full-blood Wagyu, it probably is.
Vicki Sher of award-winning brand Sher Wagyu, which produces both full-blood and F1, believes it should be up to each brand to communicate their product and attributes. Sher Wagyu’s produce is highly sought after in Japan, although regulations there stipulate that beef produced in other countries cannot be called Wagyu. Sher Wagyu is working on implementing its own labelling system but Sher says it is a complex issue and certification by itself does not tell the full story. “It needs to be sorted out by the producers talking with the chefs and customers in the marketplace,” she says. “At the end of the day each brand has to stand on its own reputation”.