Japanese Wagyu vs American Wagyu: What’s the Difference?

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when it comes to Wagyu beef, nothing compares to the original, Japanese Wagyu beef.

Recently, there’s been some confusion over the labels: ‘Japanese Wagyu’ and ‘American Wagyu’. With both labels in the marketplace, it’s understandable that consumers want to know the difference between Japanese Wagyu beef and American Wagyu beef, afterall, the names are similar. The confusion largely seems to be the result of clever marketing campaigns by American beef producers to recreate this legendary Japanese beef product. So, how did this all happen? And are the two Wagyus really that different?

Let’s start with the most obvious question…


Are there pure Wagyu cows in the US?

While it is true that for almost two decades, between 1976 and 1994, roughly 200 Wagyu cows were exported from Japan to the US; but, these cows make up just a sliver of the more than 95 million cows in the United States. And, Japan has since banned the export of live cows, embryos, and semen in order to protect the integrity and authenticity of Japanese Wagyu beef, whose breeding programs have taken centuries to cultivate and perfect.


What does Japanese Wagyu beef mean?

Japanese Wagyu is a catch-all descriptor for four breeds of Japanese cattle: Japanese Black, Japanese Shorthorn, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Brown. The word ‘Wagyu’ itself translates to Japanese cow. What sets the distinctive flavor of this legendary beef apart from the rest, is the ultra premium A5 rating that just a small number of cows receive.

It’s not uncommon for Japanese A5 Wagyu beef to sell for a staggering $250/pound!


Is there an American version of Wagyu beef?

The short answer is ‘no’. Authentic Wagyu beef originated in Japan, where select cows go through an incredibly rigorous grading system. These cows must conform to a certain weight limit, and their grade score is dependent upon a number of factors including: level of marbling, color, fat standard, firmness and meat texture.

This very specific rating system is overseen by the Japan Meat Grading Association whose inspectors spend years learning how to identify meat that meets this standard of quality.

Even ultra premium A5 Japanese Wagyu beef varies from Japanese Wagyu with a lower grade.


What is American Wagyu beef?

American Wagyu can be sourced from any crossbred Wagyu cow, think Angus or Hereford, and a purebred Wagyu cow. In fact, in order to qualify as ‘American Wagyu’ in the US, the cow must only be at least 46.875% pure Japanese blood stock, according to the USDA.

There are actually so few full blood Japanese Wagyu beef cows in the US that they are almost never slaughtered because they must remain part of US breeding programs. Because exporting Wagyu cows, embryos and semen is illegal, these populations would have no way to replenish their Wagyu livestock.

American Wagyu beef is not subject to the same grade rating system as Japanese Wagyu beef, and that rating system is how the quality of the product is defined.


To sum things up

There are distinct differences between Japanese Wagyu and American Wagyu. Part of the reason authentic Japanese Wagyu beef commands such a high market price is because there is a limited supply of authentic Japanese Wagyu beef in the world, and those cows that receive the coveted Japanese A5 Wagyu beef are the best of the best.

When considering the labels ‘American Wagyu’ and ‘Japanese Wagyu’, remember that the taste of authentic Japanese Wagyu is unmistakable, and a rarity outside of Japan. There’s a reason customers flock to the limited supplies of this luxury beef when it’s available to buy in the US.

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