Although Wagyu’s reputation as the best beef that money can buy is widespread, the distinctive look of a fresh cut of this top-end premium product may not quite be what today’s consumer was expecting.
A very Japanese product
Whenever someone tries to sell "the world’s most expensive burger", one thing can be pretty much taken for granted - it will be made from Wagyu beef. Wagyu, which simply means "Japanese cattle", is widely recognised as the world’s most pricy meat, reaching those parts of consumers’ wallets that good old Angus cannot ever hope to.
Historically, Wagyu beef was reserved for the elite. Japan’s difficult terrain and sparse arable land do not lend themselves to large-scale cattle production, and the few animals raised each year would receive an inordinate amount of pampering and special feed to compensate for the less-than-optimum conditions. The result was a tender, intensely marbled meat renowned for its full-on flavourful juiciness.
The meat from only four breeds of cattle is eligible to be called Japanese Wagyu beef - Japanese Shorthorn, Japanese Polled, Japanese Black and Japanese Brown. The most coveted and expensive of them all, Kobe beef, derives from a purebred cattle strain raised in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture.
Owing to import restrictions based on meat safety protocol compatibility issues, Japanese Wagyu beef was, until recently, not available in the EU or the US. USDA relaxed its rules back in 2012, while the EU only gave the go-ahead this year after longwinded negotiations with the relevant Japanese ministries. Shipments of Wagyu beef, raised and slaughtered in Japan, were scheduled to arrive in the EU from June 2014 onwards.
Arguably, the "Wagyu" beef that consumers in many parts of the world have been buying was not quite "the real thing". Often, this meat was derived from Wagyu cattle crossed with Australian, European and North American breeds, although a handful of thoroughbred herds outside Japan do exist, including in Europe.
There is a slight problem, however, with "the genuine article". Most consumers outside Japan are just not accustomed to the look and flavour of high-grade Wagyu beef.
The fat factor
As already mentioned, the leading factor responsible for Wagyu beef’s outstanding organoleptic qualities is its high degree of marbling. The uninitiated shopper, however, when confronted with their first glimpse of the raw product, is likely to be taken aback. For the average European, American or Australian consumer used to lean cuts of meat, Wagyu’s "incredible fattiness" is going to be off-putting.
Trimming the fat off is not an option as being finely dispersed throughout the muscle tissue is a hallmark of genuine Wagyu. Consumers are, by and large, not aware that a high percentage of the fat in Wagyu beef comes from unsaturated fatty acid rather than the artery-clogging saturated kind. But, even if they knew, the perception that "fatty meat is bad for you" is very deeply ingrained.
In short, the fat factor is a serious deterrent for today’s fairly health-and-wellness-conscious shoppers, even if availability improved and prices came down to a reasonable level.
Retailers are aware of this issue, of course. Wal-Mart-owned Asda, the UK’s third-ranking (by value sales) grocery retailer, introduced Wagyu beef at the end of 2011 under its Butcher’s Selection premium private label line. The meat was sourced from a herd in Yorkshire, bred from Holstein dairy cows impregnated with Wagyu semen. This route was not just taken to make the beef more affordable, but also to produce a less highly marbled meat that would be acceptable to UK consumers.
German discounter Aldi, which managed to double its value share of the UK grocery market over the 2008-2013 period to 3%, announced in June 2014 that it was to introduce Wagyu beef steaks in a push to expand its fresh food offerings, including its premium meat range. The product will feature in its Specialbuys range, with every store receiving a limited number of 50 steaks, priced at a very competitive £6.99 for an 8oz (225g) sirloin and rib eye.
Aldi’s Wagyu beef is sourced from New Zealand, where the cattle is allowed to roam, sustained on an exclusively grass-fed diet. In contrast, traditional Japanese Wagyu is kept confined in small pens and given much more energy-dense feed. Consequently, Aldi’s beef shows not only significantly less marbling than "authentic" Wagyu, but will also be more in line with changing consumer expectations with regard to animal welfare.
How to create a market for the real thing?
Now that Japanese-produced Wagyu beef is about to hit EU shores, organisations like Japan’s Zen-Noh Farmers’ Cooperative are getting ready for what could be a tough battle ahead. In an effort to create a market for genuine Japanese Wagyu beef in the UK, Zen-Noh has recently set up an office in the country, with a view to targeting high-end retailers and restaurants.
There is no doubt that Wagyu beef, including the coveted super-premium Kobe variant, produced the traditional way and featuring all its authentic characteristics, will, at least in the medium term, remain in the domain of the seasoned gourmet, armed with a well-nourished wallet.
Because of Wagyu beef’s slightly unsettling appearance in its raw state, consumers will need to have been served it in a restaurant at least once before there is any hope of enticing them into buying it fresh for home preparation. If Zen-Noh wishes to reach a more mainstream audience, then getting its product onto the menu cards of more accessible, middle-of-the-road foodservice establishments is probably the way to go.