A deep dive into the myths, mysteries, and Wagyu magic of our favorite protein.

There’s a fair question that we could all ask ourselves these days: “What’s the beef?” We mean that literally, of course, with America in the midst of a red-meat renaissance, and its prized protein appearing on butcher-shop counters and in grocery-store cold cases with more options than ever before.

In some ways, this is incredible. On one hand, after generations of ignorance-is-bliss convenience, we’re becoming acquainted with (and interested in) our food again, and the market is rising to meet the demand. The farm-to-table movement gave rise to whole-animal butchery, which introduced us to unlikely cuts, while a new wave of farmers has shifted toward producing high-quality meat hinged on practices like ethical care, environmental conservation, and sustainability. It’s why we can find oyster and baseball and buvette steaks next to our old-standby ribeyes.

On the other hand, though, as steaks and sausages flood the meat counter with a slew of terminology—A5, prime, choice, select, grass-fed, grain-finished, certified, and so on—it leaves many a consumer in a state of confusion, unaware of what exactly it is they’re eating. It leaves us wanting to know what are we buying, what is the best of the best, and what is simply marketing, or even misinformation? And nowhere in the beef department is this such an issue as with the most hallowed of all, Wagyu.

A couple decades ago, you’d be lucky to find Wagyu on a menu, and if you did, like white truffles or caviar, it probably sold for at least $100 a pound, though it was much more likely to be sold by a mere few ounces. Back then, those buttery, tender, time-honored steaks from Wagyu cattle —a centuries-old Japanese breed with meticulously tended genetics yielding top-dollar beef—were likely imported from their homeland overseas.

It’s a wild story, well reported by Texas Monthly, but in 1976, the first four bulls were exported from Japan to the United States in a shroud of controversy, and upon arrival, were swiftly crossbred with other cow breeds, ultimately diluting the delicacy. For this, it was a slow crawl to the top, but in 1992, their progeny won big at the National Western Stock Show, and the next year, eased restrictions between the two countries brought the first load of Wagyu cattle stateside in 17 years. Before long, a boom of breeding was underway, causing Japan to swiftly ban the export of its sacred crow in 1997, now officially deemed a national treasure.

At that point, though, the calf was already out of the pen, so to speak. It is now estimated that there are now some 40,000 Wagyu cattle in the United States, be they full-blood (aka 100 percent Wagyu), purebred (aka at least 93.75 percent Wagyu), or cross-bred (50% or less). It is said that the vast majority happen to be the latter. And they’re not all created equal.

To understand the difference, let’s begin with the USDA’s beef grading system, which is already enigmatic to many consumers. Here in the U.S., beef receives one of three grades primarily based on its marbling—aka the amount of intramuscular fat (IMF), aka those streaks within the cut of the meat—which impacts flavor and tenderness.

“It’s the last type of fat to be put on by the animal, so they have to be healthy and well-proportioned everywhere else before it even starts forming,” says Texas chef Jess Pryles, who earned her graduate degree in meat science from Iowa State University. “The more marbling, the higher the grade.”

In three main categories, “prime” is the highest quality—ranging from an IMF of 9.9 to 12.3 percent or higher—but only makes up 2 percent of all of our American beef. Followed by “choice” (IMF 4.0 to 9.8), followed by “select” (IMF 2.3 to 3.9), with lowers grades sold ungraded or as store-brand meat. Grading is optional, but producers or processing facilities can request visits from a USDA inspector, who will visually grade each carcass off a cut between the 12th and 13th rib, aka the ribeye, which separates the fore and hind quarter.

“While choice can be comparable to some prime, there is a noticeable difference between prime and select, and even select and choice,” says Pryles. “This shows up in terms your flavor, your texture, your juiciness. The higher you move up, the more those desirable traits increase.  . . . The USDA grades are the best way for the consumer to be guaranteed a minimum quality.”

But to make matters even more confusing, the crème de la crème of beef—Wagyu—is largely known in terms of the Japanese grading system. Unlike like the USDA’s simple terminology, theirs appears in the form letters—based on the yield, aka the amount of retail cuts able to be made from a single carcass—and numbers—based on the marbling, aka IMF, which can reach significantly higher than prime, often exceeding 30 percent—ultimately ranging from C1 to the lauded A5. These vary from Wagyu to Wagyu, with crossbred still better than much of what you can find in the grocery store, but higher scores are typically correlated with full-blood breeds. And no, the cows are not massaged or fed fine beer, as has long been the myth, but there are myriad other traditions involved; like French wine, some varieties only hail from famed regions, like Kobe, aka the capitol of Hyogo.

Meanwhile, in America, it’s the wild west. Here, Wagyu is loosely defined and largely an umbrella term. In order to be labeled as such, the USDA only requires that the animal have at least one purebred or full-blood parent, which might make the beef you’re eating less than half Wagyu, with no further official grades to relay the spectrum of quality. Meaning that unless your Wagyu steak hails from Japan (or Australia, where strict standards are also enforced), that American designation is largely a matter of blind faith.

Which is why a Wagyu ribeye can be found on the shelf at Walmart for less than $20 a pound. Which is why Arby’s now sells a six-buck Wagyu burger, which could be as little as 22 percent Wagyu, and even then, just the scraps mixed with other unknown beef. At the same time, walk into a restaurant and you might pay premium Japanese prices for a steak that’s majority Angus or Holstein or Hereford. At the end of the day, you don’t necessarily know what you’re paying for.

“Wagyu doesn’t mean anything without further context,” says Pryles, noting that brands have flooded the market with their own ratings, plus other arbitrary marketing lingo to label their products the likes of “gold” or “platinum.” “You need to know the IMF, but even then, if a company tells you their Wagyu is A5, who’s verifying it?”

To combat this issue, set a standard of quality, and keep their product from becoming a commodity like other cattle, the American Wagyu Association is in the process of creating their own certified grading program, akin to those used by the USDA and in Australia and Japan.

A Waygu bull at Caroland Farms.

“That program is supposed to give the consumer the ability to know what they’re buying,” says Matt Rainey, board member of the American Wagyu Association and farm manager at Caroland Farms in Landrum, South Carolina, whose herd is made up of 400 full-blood Wagyu cattle. “We want customers to be able to go from restaurant to restaurant, farm to farm, see a grade, and know the difference, so they can decide what they’re willing to pay for.  Some people may not care, but there are a lot of people who appreciate the quality.”

And in the meantime, some small full-blood farms like Caroland have started to enlist technology commonly used abroad in the form of a state-of-the-art carcass cameras, which can calculate more than 10 data points about the meat, from marbling to meat density. Compared to the human eye, these tools are prized for their accuracy, consistency, and objectivity. And for farmers like Rainey, they help not only confirm IMF, but also to inform the future of the herd, with the information received influencing their breeding selection as they strive toward producing higher and higher quality meat.

(Similarly, in the manufacturing industry, such as with cast-iron cookware, profilometers are common tools used to measure the industry standard of surface roughness average, or Ra. To the unknowing cook, our pans might seem just as smooth as some of the competition. But this piece of technology helps us prove that Butter Pats do indeed have a lower Ra than the rest, and as we’ve told you before, much like marbling to a piece of meat, smoothness matters. Higher Ra is more likely to lead to cracks or corrosion and, especially for our purposes, poor seasoning.)

“Until official grading comes along, this is our checks and balances,” says Rainey. “It lets us make sure that the quality we’re putting out there is what we’re striving for.”

A Wagyu steak from Caroland Farms.

And there’s good reason to care so much. In the commodity beef industry, bigger is better and cattle are grown to size as quickly and cost-effectively as possible—read fast and cheap. Whereas, like other small, mindful cattle operations across the U.S., Wagyu are a long-term investment, sometimes taking twice as long to reach market, and in turn, their ample marbling. But with the right level of attention and care, it’s a difference you can clearly taste.

“It’s a pretty cool animal,” says Rainey, noting that peer-reviewed studies have even linked high-IMF Wagyu with lower cholesterol. “It makes it difficult to go to restaurants. Let’s just say I don’t eat many steaks out anymore.”

November 03, 2023 — Dennis Powell