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Meat Digest : The History of Kobe Beef Last Updated: Oct 18, 2010 - 11:53:30 AM

Injecting Some Science into Wagyu Breeding
By Prof John W. Longworth
Oct 28, 2004 - 4:54:00 PM

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Wagyu cattle, irrespective of sex or breed, can be registered by the National Wagyu Cattle Registration Association.  This process begins when the calf is born.  Breeders who belong to certain breeding groups designated by the Association and who have a calf which satisfies various other requirements may apply for pedigree registration.  The offspring of unregistered parents are not eligible, so each breed register is effectively closed.  The subjectively assessed body conformation score plays a dominant role in the registration process.  The ability to produce meat is only objectively considered in the case of males who are candidates for Breeding Registration.


Even in 1970, when the first nationally co-ordinated Wagyu herd improvement programme was launches, 93% of all beef cows were artificially inseminated.  The selection of AI sires was, therefore, seen as a critical aspect of herd improvement.  AI Centres for beef cattle have traditionally been run or controlled by prefectural governments.  New sires for these AI centres have been produced by “planned mating” which is an elaborate procedure in which a committee of knowledgeable people nominate which AI sires will be mated to the available and appropriately registered cows.


Shabu shabu beef from Lucies Farm: cut thin, and shipped on special food-grade paper


It has become increasingly common for Japanese Blacks of the Tajima strain to be mated with other Japanese Black strains noted for their superior growth rates (e.g. Hiroshima strain).  The aim is to combine the excellent marbling characteristics of the Tajima strain with the greater meat producing efficiency of the other strains.  Despite this recognition of the advantages of crossing pure bred blood lines, there is virtually no interest in any genuine cross-breeding --- either between the four Wagyu breeds, or between the Wagyu cattle and imported beef breeds.  With the widespread use of AI it would be relatively easy for any Japanese beef farmer to adopt a cross-breeding programme.  The resistance to cross-breeding is due to both breeder loyalty to the various Wagyu breeds, and the belief that the meat trade objects to cross-bred carcasses.


The Japanese grading system was devised in the early 1960’s.  At that time, cattle had traditionally been fattened when fully mature after years of work in the fields or, in the case of dairy cows, after several lactations.  As Wagyu cattle have always been prized for their highly marbled meat, it was only natural that the grading system should place great emphasis on the degree of marbling, or sashi.  Over the past three decades there has been a conscious effort to de-emphasize sashi in grading.  Nevertheless, the degree of marbling still dominates meat evaluation in the minds of traditional producers and wholesalers.


There are six grade categories:


  • Special Selection or Super Grade (Tokusen)
  • Choice (Gokujo)
  • First Grade (Jo)
  • Second Grade (Chu)
  • Third Grade (Nami)
  • Under-regular Grades (Togai)

No account is taken of breed, age, or sex in the formal system.  At the auction, however, buyers are informed not only of the weight and grade (stamped on the carcass) but also of the sex, breed, and fattening district.  Grades are determined on the basis of a half-carcass (side), this being the basic unit inspection at auction in the wholesale meat markets.  Normally the side is cut between the 5th and 6th ribs to enable the grader (and buyer) to see the eye of the rib.  The location of the cut has not been standardized:  in Osaka Central Wholesale Market the meat is inspected and graded at the 7th/8th rib section.


The failure to standardize  the precise point at which sashi and other carcass characteristics are assessed is a major problem.  It is well known that in any carcass marbling decreases and eye muscle size increases as you move back along the rib cage.  The American system of inspection at the 12th/13th rib section will shown any given carcass as having less marbling and a larger rib-eye muscle than the Japanese grading system.


There are six basic sashi scores --- from 0 to 5, with 5 being the best score.  Sashi may be scored slightly above or a little below the six basic counts (with the exception that 0- is not used):  there are potentially seventeen sashi scores:


0, 0+, 1-, 1, 1+  and so on to 5+.


It is difficult to generalize, but most traditional meat traders in Japan would regard even the best grass fattened chilled beef from Australia as having a sashi score of no more than 1 and hence falling into the Third Grade (Nami) category.  As a result, beef assessed as high quality in Australia would be ranked near the bottom of the scale according to the Japanese grading system. 


On the other hand, the best frozen U.S. beef derived from lot-fed cattle and imported into Japan as HQ beef may almost correspond to First Grade (Jo) domestic dairy steer beef.  This meat is even promoted to the rank of Kobe beef in some hotels and restaurants.  Many sections of the Japanese meat trade regard the best cuts from the U.S. as comparable in quality not only to the best Japanese dairy steer, but also to all but the Super Grade Wagyu meat.  The American product is always true-to-specification and homogenous in quality, both within a shipment and across shipments.  This is possible because American packers use only carcasses from lot-fed cattle which have been carefully fattened to order.


The selection and training of graders is the responsibility of the Japan Meat Grading Association, established in February 1975.  In 1981, the charge for grading was only Y150 ($0.60) per beef carcass, so the Association was operating at a considerable loss.


Few Wagyu carcasses --- which would make either the Super or the Choice grades --- are presented for grading.  These specialty carcasses are prepared by the traditional trade for select high class restaurants where they are consumed as genuine Kobe beef.


From Beef in Japan by Prof. John W. Longworth, University of Queensland Press, 1983.  This book is currently out-of-print, and this information is used here with the kind permission of Prof. Longworth.


If any of this information has changed in the past 21 or so years, we would greatly appreciate it if you would please e-mail us.  We will gladly update this information.


Photographs for Lucies Farm by Kjeld Duits.

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