How did we end up with the WAGYU known today?
Modern Wagyu cattle are the result of crossing of the native cattle in Japan with imported breeds. Crossing began in 1868 after the Meiji restoration in that year. The government wanted to introduce Western food habits and culture. Brown Swiss, Devon, Shorthorn, Simmental, Ayrshire, and Korean cattle were imported during this period. The infusions of these British, European and Asian breeds were closed to outside genetic infusions in 1910.
The variation of conformation within the Wagyu breed is greater than the variation across British and European breeds. The three major black strains - Tajiri or Tajima, Fujiyoshi (Shimane) and Kedaka (Tottori) evolved due to regional geographic isolation in Japan. These breeding differences have produced a Japanese national herd that comprises 90% black cattle with the remaining 10% being of the red strains Kochi and Kumamoto.
In Japan, there are four breeds that are considered Wagyu and those are the Japanese Black (the predominant Wagyu exported to the U.S), Japanese Brown (in the U.S. referred to as Red Wagyu), Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn. Although there are Polled and Shorthorns breeds, none are allowed to be bred outside of Japan. Furthermore, Wagyu strains were isolated according to Prefecture (state) and breeds imported for crossing were not the same in each Prefecture.
The production of Wagyu beef in Japan is highly regulated and progeny testing is mandatory. Only the very best proven genetics are kept for breeding. Realizing the value of their unique product, the Japanese Government banned the export of Wagyu and declared them a national living treasure.
So how did they find their way to the U.S.?
Now enter the U.S. cattle business into the picture. Four Wagyu Bulls were first introduced to the US via a gift from the Emperor of Japan to the Governor of Hawaii in 1976. Those bulls (two black and 2 red) somehow made their way to Canada and then were bought by a Texas cattle rancher. These four bulls did not resell as breeding bulls but their semen where saved and utilized to become the mainstay for the early American Wagyu until the early 90’s when Japan loosen their grip a bit. In 1989, the Japanese began to reduce their tariffs on imported beef and that encouraged U.S. producers to produce a high-quality product for Japan. In the 1990’s there were several importations of quality Wagyu. Most were Black, but a few were the Red Wagyu variety. It is these cattle that have had the greatest influence on the U.S. herd.
Early on most of the U.S. production was exported to Japan until 2003 when BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) or Mad Cow was discovered. It was then that Japan and other countries stopped the import of beef from the U.S.. However, by then the U.S. chefs and consumers had become increasingly aware of the superior quality of Wagyu and the domestic market took off and today utilizes much of the U.S. production leaving little to export.
WAGYU as a breed and Kobe as a brand
Before we jump to far into the U.S. Wagyu market let us go back and understand the “breed” Wagyu. There are only four Japanese native breeds – Black (Kuroge), Brown (Akage), Shorthorn (Nihon Tankaku) and Polled (Nihon Mukaku). These are those cattle that the Japanese perfected over years of careful breeding. Notice there was no reference to the infamous Kobe beef. That is because Kobe simply put a Black Wagyu raised in the Hyogo Prefecture which has Kobe as its capital. There is honestly nothing special about Kobe when it comes to comparison with other Wagyu beef. In fact, there are some 150 different “brands” of beef in Japan. Kobe from Hyogo Prefecture, Masusaka from Mie Prefecture and Ohmi from Shiga Prefecture happen to be the most famous but many would argue that most famous does not equate to best quality. However, we do thank those that placed Wagyu on the map using the beef sourced from the Kobe region within Japan. And yes, we also thank Kobe Bryant’s parents for seeing that steak brand on a menu and naming their son after that meat. For us however, we know we do not offer “Kobe” beef, we sell Wagyu! Others may say they sell Kobe and when they do, ask them to prove it – our guess is they will not and cannot. They are simply using a brand to push their product, a brand they really do not have the right to use.