What Exactly Is American Wagyu Beef?

There's Japanese Wagyu beef, and then there's American Wagyu. What's the difference?

Published Apr. 5, 2022.

If you spend time at a Costco or an upscale butchery, it would not be uncommon to see a lighter-colored beef with intense marbling called “Wagyu.” Though the naming can be ambiguous and lead to more questions than answers, the trendy delicacy may be worth checking out. 

The word “Wagyu” basically translates as “Japanese beef.” It is a breed of cattle that was initially used as a draft animal. Because of the freezing temperatures of Japan and the cows’ labor-intensive lives, these cows were bred over many generations to develop high levels of intramuscular fat.

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Fast-forward to the 20th century, when the mechanization of farming practices rendered Japan’s herd of draft animals largely obsolete and Japanese breeders began butchering their now-retired cattle. They found an unexpectedly lucrative market for the meat due to its rich, creamy texture and buttery taste.

What Is “American Wagyu”? 

In the United States, “American Wagyu” is the term used to distinguish the meat from domestically raised cattle from the meat imported from Japan. American Wagyu can be the direct descendants of the famous master bull Tajiri (the ancestor of all Japanese black Wagyu, or Kuroge Washu); this can be confirmed by DNA testing. However, in most cases, they’re the product of crossbreeding, commonly of Japanese cattle with Angus and Holstein.

Unlike its Japanese counterpart, the American Wagyu–specific  “grading” system (at least for now) is based on genetics. The direct descendants of the Japanese cows are considered full-blooded; the ones that have 50 percent full-blooded Wagyu parentry (or in other words, are crossbred) are often labeled as F1.

It all becomes tricky when a crossbred cow with 50 percent Wagyu DNA is mixed with a full-blooded cow. As the baby cow will now carry 75 percent Wagyu DNA, it’ll be labeled as an F2. And when an F2 cow breeds with a full-blooded cow, the Wagyu genetic percentage will also rise and become an F3. As it reaches 93.75 percent, it can be considered F4, or “purebred,” as seen on some food labels.

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Why Are They Crossbreeding Wagyu? 

Crossbreeding Wagyu is a common practice due in part to the export ban instituted by the Japanese government in 1997. After the ban, no Wagyu cow or even specimen of Wagyu DNA could legally leave the country.

Another reason is potentially due to Western tastes. American consumers are used to the taste of Angus, Simmental, and Holstein varieties, whose meat is leaner than the fatty, buttery Wagyu.

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Are There Still American-Raised Full-Blooded Wagyu? 

The answer is yes, but they’re a rather niche product. According to the American Wagyu Association, Wagyu cattle was first imported to the United States in 1975. However, most of the cattle raised in the United States ended up being exported back to Japan to meet their consumer demand.

Robert Williams of the American Wagyu Association says that they “will register approximately 8,200 head of Fullblood Wagyu this year.” There are some small-scale operations dedicated to raising the finest breed for consumption, such as Vermont Wagyu, whose business used to focus on serving high-end restaurants. Due to the pandemic and subsequent restaurant closures, some small Wagyu suppliers have shifted their focus to brick-and-mortar retail stores and e-commerce.

Shopping for Wagyu 

Wagyu is expensive, so it’s important to know what you’re getting. Oftentimes, retailers are happy to answer any questions you may have. If the package doesn’t clearly indicate where the beef is from or how it’s graded, ask your butcher.

Photo: Martina Birnbaum / EyeEm, Getty Images

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