和牛 Wagyu( a cattleman's dream )
In Japan there are four breeds that are considered Wagyu: Japanese Black (the predominant Wagyu exported to the U.S.), Japanese Brown (referred to as Red Wagyu or Akaushi in the U.S.), Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn.
Wagyu were originally draft animals used in agriculture, and were selected for their physical endurance. This selection favored animals with more intra-muscular fat cells (marbling) which provided a readily-available energy source. Wagyu is a horned breed and the cattle are either black or red in color.
Modern Wagyu cattle resulted from crossing the native cattle of Japan with breeds imported to Japan. Crossing began in 1868 after the Meiji restoration, when the government wanted to introduce Western food habits and culture to the Japanese people. Brown Swiss, Devon, Shorthorn, Simmental, Ayrshire, and Korean cattle were imported during this period.
There are three major Japanese black strains: Tajiri (Tajima), Fujiyoshi (Shimane), and Kedaka (Tottori), which evolved due to regional geographic isolation in Japan. These breed differences resulted in a Japanese national herd that is comprised of 95% black cattle and 5% of the red strains Kochi and Kumamoto.
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 and highly-prized beef, the Japanese Government banned the export of Wagyu and declared them a national living treasure.
Wagyu cattle were first imported into the US in 1975 with two black and two red bulls. 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 1990s there were several importations of quality Wagyu. Most were black, but a few were Red Wagyu. These original imports have had the greatest influence on the U.S. herd and those in many other countries.
The unique taste and tenderness of highly-marbled Wagyu beef makes for an unrivaled dining experience, and the profile of the marbling is more beneficial and better for human health than other types of beef.
Health experts discovered the mono-unsaturated to saturated fat ratio is much higher in Wagyu than in other beef, and the saturated fat contained in Wagyu is different. Forty percent is stearic acid, which is regarded as having a minimal impact in raising cholesterol levels.
Wagyu is also higher in a type of fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Wagyu beef contains the highest amount of CLA per gram of any foodstuff – about 30% more than other beef breeds – due to higher linoleic acid levels. Foods that are naturally high in CLA have fewer negative health effects.
The opportunities Wagyu beef can offer are endless. The industry caters to the breeder/feeder targeting the high-end restaurant trade as well as the bull producer supplying the commercial cow/calf operator. As a terminal cross alternative, Wagyu offers calving ease and a premium carcass quality in a single cross — which no other beef breed can come close to.
In the future, the Wagyu breed will play a pivotal role in increasing quality and consistency in taste and tenderness of red meat that the health-conscious consumer of the twenty-first century seeks.