Wednesday, 10 August 2011

How can you have a $10 wagyu burger?

 Can they call it wagyu under the Trade Descriptions Act?

Sydney definitely has food trends. When I arrived in Australia cupcake shops were opening across the city. Then the world went made for Adriano Zumbo and macaroons. Over the last six months seemingly every restaurant in the city has added wagyu to their menu.

Many argue wagyu is the world's finest beef. It certainly is very good. I'd expect to see wagyu on the menu of smart restaurants like Rockpool. But how can you have $10 wagyu burgers in the local pub? People have been happily chomping on them for the last few months. However, the recent launch of a Subway foot long wagyu sandwich for $7.95 has got people questioning the brand.

Recent comments by Simon and Blue Eyes have prompted me to do some research and write this post. I hope you like it!

Where does wagyu come from?
Wagyu refers to five major breeds of Japanese cattle. Originally working cows used in rice cultivation the animals are prized for their high levels of marbelling, thought to increase tenderness and flavour.

The most famous Japanese cattle are black and can be sold under their regional names, e.g. Kobe, as well as the generic term wagyu. In addition to the black cows there is a also a Kumamoto Red breed of wagyu.

Australia, Japan and the USA are the largest producers of wagyu beef in the world. The first wagyu cows arrived in Australia in 1990 according to the Australian Wagyu Association. There are approximately 300 wagyu breeders in Australia registered with the AWA. Australian farmers are now a net exporter of wagyu back to Japan. I read that 20,000 live steers are exported from Australia to Japan each year.

Massaging the cows, feeding them beer and playing them classical music is a popular myth from my research.

Official standards of wagyu
Coming from Europe I am used to food origin standards, the most famous being Appellation d'origine controlée. A product needs to come from a set region and be made using traditional techniques to obtain the appellation controlée mark. The most famous example is probably champagne. The concept is quite widespread and now even the humble Cornish pasty needs to come from Cornwall.

Australia seems to have no such standards for produce. The type, grade and source of wagyu is not clearly labelled. There seems to be no official definition of where wagyu ends and regular beef begins. According to the Australian Wagyu Association anything below F1 (explained below) shouldn't be called wagyu, but I haven't found anything that would actually prevent you from doing so.

I haven't been able to definitively find out if there is an official standard of wagyu in Japan. From the research I have done the type and grade of wagyu is clearly labelled and consumers understand the difference, but I don't know if this is mandatory. Blue Eyes told me that on his recent trip to Japan you got to see the 'birth certificate' of the beef you were buying.

Fullblood, Purebreed and Crossbred wagyu
In Japan there are three grades of wagyu marketed. Fullbreed wagyu has a pure genetic line that can be traced back to a Japanese bull and sire and there is no evidence of cross breeding in the family tree.

If the wagyu has been cross bred with another breed of cow (most commonly angus in Australia) the standard of wagyu becomes puredreed or the lowest form, crossbred.

The different types of wagyu are best described in the below table:
Wagyu bull x wagyu cow = Fullblood
Wagyu bull x angus cow = F1, the off spring will be 50% wagyu, Crossbred
Wagyu bull x F1 female = F2, the off spring will be 75% wagyu, Crossbred
Wagyu bull x F2 female = F3, the off spring will be 87.5% wagyu, Crossbred
Wagyu bull x F3 female = F4, the off spring will be 93.75% wagyu, Purebreed

The biggest selling type of wagyu in Japan is F1, purchased for eating in the home and cooked in family restaurants. Subway's sandwich is also made with F1 wagyu.

I've never seen the grade of wagyu clearly labelled in Australian butchers and supermarkets. All you seem to get is the generic 'wagyu'. As the above table shows that could mean a multitude of things.

Grades of wagyu
Once you know the type of wagyu you are dealing with, the next thing to do is to grade the beef. The grading system is not exclusive to wagyu, but as a type of beef known for its marbling it is perhaps the most relevant.

The marbling system runs from zero to twelve, with the higher the number the more marbling present in the meat. It is unusual for scores above nine to occur. There are some good photos on the Glenmore Meats website of grade 3, 5, 7, 9 and 9+ beef .

Crossbred wagyu struggles to achieve above grade 4-6. Purebreed wagyu would be aiming for grade 9 and fullblood wagyu even higher.

I have seen the grade of beef advertised in some Australian butchers.

The price of wagyu
Once you've identified your type of wagyu how much does it cost? My quick research today found the below prices.

Glenmore meats, scotch fillet:
Fullblood, grade 7, $126 per kg
Fullblood, grade 5, $69 per kg
Crossbred, unknown grade, $45 per kg

Feather and Bone (post coming soon): sirloin:
F2 crossbred, unknown grade, $66 per kg


Conclusion
I hope you have learnt something, I certainly have!

The wagyu brand has been very successful, but even before my research I felt that it was being devalued here in Australia. It isn't being explained to the consumer what they are eating in restaurants or what they are paying for at their local butcher. Consequently the high end wagyu is being devalued in my eyes.

For me wagyu is a textural, rather than flavour experience. The majority of beef we are being served as wagyu is low grade / marbled F1 beef. For the same money I'd actually prefer to eat a more flavoursome steer.

There is a lot more to add, but this post is already long enough. If you are interested in what will be the next big thing after wagyu check out Chianina an Italian breed of cow with which big things are being done in Victoria.


Bibliography:
I haven't included a bibliography since I left university, but it seems appropriate to cite some of the sources I read for this post. If you are interested have a read.

The Australian, Where's the beef?
The Australian Wagyu Association
Blackmore WagyuThe wagyu store in Australia
Gourmet Getaways Raging River wagyu
Hawthorn Meat Store
Jakarta Post, All about wagyu
Weekly Times Now, Subway creates wagyu debate
Wikipedia for a general overview

7 comments:

  1. great post. perhaps email to all the time out burger war restaurants to see if they can add any comments. i love the popular myths although it probably should be japanese music rather than classical music perhaps hehe

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  2. Fascinating research - and yes, I did learn alot from the post! I do appreciate a tasty wagyu steak but I still don't see the point of wagyu patties for burgers - why not just have a patty with fat added? Perhaps I need more taste education there..

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  3. @Simon - great idea!

    @Gourmet Forager - high praise that I might have been able to teach a person that researchers their posts so well something!

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  4. Nice one Richie and good to be questioning terms and definitions. For me I like beef and coming form Rocky, where 1 in 4 family members worked the abattoirs, and from a town where some local pubs will sack a chef if a complaint comes back about how a steak is cooked, has always led me to conclude you can call a steak whatever you like and charge the moon for it but if it is cooked bad it does not matter.

    Wagyu beef can taste delicious but so can a run of the mill undisclosed Rump. Subway and McDolands offering Wagyu as a menu choice is just cheapening the brand. Pre-cooked beef flash frozen and then defrosted in a commercial grade convection microwave before quickly slapping it on a stainless cooker is simply a joke but if you want to buy into the hype then thumbs up to clever marketing. You won't get me gentrifying my McDonalds experience anytime soon.

    Can a small time cafe achieve success at a competitive price in the Wagyu phenomenon? Hell yes! Reality is you have probably consumed many a tasty hand ground beef patty made from Wagyu and never even knew it because it just tasted great and was well cooked and presented. Relying on an ability to cook well rather than relying on the label is all smiles in my book.

    The shear fact McDonalds and Subway can offer the experience is a testament to volume of scale and the access we all now have. Unfortunately volume does comes to devalue the name.

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