You couldn’t pass a beach park this Memorial Day weekend without smelling meat cooking on the grill. Summer means barbecuing at the beach, and Americans consume more meat than anyone else on the planet–more than 270 pounds per person every year.
Every occasion seems to require meat at the table. What’s more, the poor eat just as much meat as the rich, though with one difference: if you’re rich, you tend to eat richer, more expensive meat.
Still, Americans’ taste for meat is changing. In 2010, for the first time in the hundred year span since the Earth Policy Institute started taking notes in 1909, chicken consumption surpassed beef consumption at the American table. The price of beef may have had something to do with that–costs have risen about 30 percent. Beef has also gained a bad reputation as a less healthy meat, despite the availability of many lean options.
What’s more, our tastes for specific types of beef are also evolving. Now we have grass-fed, organic and even specific breed options like Angus and Wagyu.
The latter beef is relatively rare. There are just a handful of Wagyu cattle farmers in the US–just about 200 registered breeders–who are raising the Japanese beef known for its fat, marbled meat. In terms of raw numbers, there are roughly 30 million Angus cattle in the US versus 30 million versus 3,000 to 5,000 Wagyu cattle.
Counter-intuitively, Wagyu’s fat marbling actually makes the meat healthier (this, of course, comes from the American Wagyu Association). Analysis has shown that the meat contains more omega 3 and stearic acid and has less impact on cholesterol levels than other beef.
The Japanese are extremely proud of their Wagyu cattle. Though they no longer let the beef’s genetics escape their country, for a brief period between 1974 and 1994 the US imported and developed its own Wagyu herd.
“In 1976, four Wagyu bulls were given as a gift to a Hawaiian from the Emperor of Japan,” says Jay Theiler of Snake River Farms. “At that time, these were the only Wagyu cattle to leave Japan. The Japanese people consider Wagyu national treasures and it was considered the smuggling of defense secrets to export these cattle. Waygu bloodlines were first imported to the mainland US in 1994 as a venture between Japanese partners and several entities in the US. Snake River Farms’ parent company Agri Beef got the rights to a bull by the name of Fukutsuru that was tested by Washington State University to be the top marbling bull in the US.”
Theiler recently hosted a dinner at Merriman’s Kapalua that featured the lavish meats from Snake River Farms paired with wines from the Signorello winery. Snake River is located in the high plains of eastern Idaho. Their Wagyu cattle are fed a steady diet of potatoes, corn, wheat and alfalfa and no growth hormones.
The official term for these artisan cuts is American Wagyu Beef. But some restaurants also call it Kobe beef. In an April 12, 2012 Forbes article titled “Food’s Biggest Scam: The Great Kobe Beef Lie,” journalist Larry Olmstead says the terms are problematic. According to Olmstead, Kobe beef is a very specific line of Wagyu cattle in Japan that must be raised in the Kobe prefecture in order for the Japanese to identify it as Kobe beef. It’s the same as the requirement that champagne must come from the Champagne region of France in order to have that name on its label (otherwise, it’s just “sparkling wine”).
“Honest to goodness full-blooded cattle from different Japanese or Wagyu breeds have been exported to this country in the past for breeding, before the ban,” Olmstead says in his article. “Some well-intentioned farmers have maintained these bloodlines in 100% pure forms, with the documentation to proceve it, and these would be the ones to seek out. But most have not. Even the term Purebred Wagyu, used by the American Wagyu Association, does not refer to a wholly pure animal.”
Many of the Wagyu cattle imported here were intentionally crossed with Angus breeds to create an American Wagyu herd, like the cattle at Snake River Farms. Olmstead’s objection is not on the quality of the meat, but on the loose application and definition of what restaurants and retailers can identify as Kobe beef or Wagyu beef and what that means.
When the Japanese originally reduced cattle tariffs in the late 1980s and gave their bovine genes to the US, it was to encourage the producers to export a high quality beef. This trade was stopped in its tracks in 2003 when the first case of mad cow disease was discovered here, and many countries banned American beef.
Around that time chefs began realizing that Wagyu was lovely to work with, and American palates for beef were retrained to appreciate artisan brands and alternative ranching methods. Buzzwords like “sustainable,” “grass-fed” and “local” began having a serious impact on our buying.
“When we first started raising Wagyu cattle here in the US, we shipped everything we produced back to Japan (between 1997-2003),” says Theiler. “After the BSE case was discovered in the US in December 2003, Japan closed their borders to American beef and we lost the ability to export there. Since that time there has been an outright ban or a partial ban–only cattle 20 months and younger were eligible between 2005-March, 2013–so we have not shipped any Snake River Farms Wagyu beef there since 2003. We cannot produce the quality of beef that Wagyu is known for in 20 months. Most of our cattle are between 28-30 months of age.”
But now things are changing.
“With the recent change in the regulations we are looking at exporting to Japan again, but have not yet done so,” says Theiler. “As more Japanese beef has come in from Japan, we actually think it has helped our business as more people become aware of the quality and in some cases restaurants sell our product side by side with Japanese origin for tasting comparisons. The American and international markets are now much larger for us than Japan. We also ship to Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Canada and Mexico.”
By the way, Wagyu beef is delicate in flavor, intricately marbled and melts in your mouth. I appreciate beef in many forms but the Snake River Rib Eye and their petite filet were sensational. Snake River Farms started selling here in Hawaii eight years ago, and they say they hold about 20 accounts in Maui.
You can find their American Wagyu beef at Makawao Steakhouse, Capische?, Amasia at the Grand Wailea, Pineapple Grill, Honu and Mala. To purchase cuts of your own for the grill, head to Maui Prime.