Wagyu is the name of a breed of cattle in Japan.
They are a very docile breed, originally bred for field work. More than 85% (2004 numbers) of the cattle raised in Japan are Black Wagyu. The strain called “The Tattori Black Wagyu” is the most prized.
Despite marketing claims, the breed has really only been developed for marbling since the 1950s, when most Japanese farms became mechanized and no longer used the cows for field work.
Fat develops inside the muscles of this breed, not just around them. The marbling in the Black Wagyu is considered the best.
It is very expensive because not a lot of Wagyu beef is being produced for North American or Australian markets. In fact, those markets have said they want fat-free beef.
Wagyu Beef raised and sold outside of Japan is sold as a Western version of Kobe beef. It is sometimes called “Kobe-style”, because consumers are slightly more likely to have heard of Kobe beef than they are of Wagyu. In general, Wagyu beef sells for about half the price of certified Kobe beef. Still, a Wagyu rib steak can be $53 US a pound, a porterhouse about $100 a pound (2004 prices.)
Wagyu Cattle are fed differently from other cattle. Other cattle might have 120 days of final fattening at the “feedlot”, and are fed corn. Wagyu will have at least 350 to 500 days of final fattening, and are fed beer and whiskey mash. Unlike in Japan when being raised for Kobe beef, the cattle aren’t massaged (though that practice has been abandoned in Japan now too, except for show.)
The beef has very good fat marbling even in the cuts that are the “cheaper cuts” on normal beef, such as flank steak or brisket. Thus, these cuts come out far moister owing to the marbling in them.
The Wagyu Beef can be made into cuts that Westerners are familiar with, including hamburgers.
In December 2006, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) passed guidelines stating that in Japan beef could only be sold labelled as Wagyu if the beef were from cattle that had been born in Japan, thus preventing foreign producers from competing in the Japanese market under the name of Wagyu beef.
Part of their argument points to the fact that what Western consumers are sold as Wagyu beef is not actually from purebred Wagyu cattle. Breeders in Australia, particularly, have cross-bred Wagyu cattle with Angus cattle, and it is beef from those cross-breeds that is often sold in the West as Wagyu.
Fans say that Wagyu beef steaks should be cooked no more than medium-rare, and use no seasoning other than salt and pepper.
Wagyu cattle aren’t native to Japan. They are the result of cross-breeding between cattle breeds such as Angus, Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Devon, Holstein, Korean, Simmental, and Shorthorn cattle imported into Japan.
No cattle were allowed into Japan from 1635 to 1854, during the Shogun period of isolationism. Prior to 1868, beef wasn’t really eaten. But after that, Japanese leaders wanted to introduce some Western values into the country, including possibly stronger, beefier warriors.
Importation of cattle into the country opened up again in the 1870s. In 1919, a government programme of selective breeding was started  then taken up again in the 1950s. The efforts resulted in two main strains of Wagyu cattle, the black and the red (though they are actually more brown.)
The Japanese National Wagyu Cattle Registration Association was formed in 1948.
To protect the market for domestically bred Wagyu Beef, sometime (1960s?) the Japanese government forbade the export of live Wagyu Cattle. Four of the cattle were exported live, however to America in 1976 despite the ban. The Japanese government started allowing live export in 1992, but discontinued it again in 1996 owing to political pressure from domestic Wagyu Cattle raisers who feared foreign competition. During this four year period, some two hundred cows and 15 bulls were exported to America by a Wagyu Cattle breeder in Japan named Shogo Takeda. He was expelled from the Japanese Wagyu Association because of his actions, who despite the export being allowed at the time by the government, still tried to maintain the export ban on its own.
From America, the cattle were exported live to Australia.
As of 2004, the cattle were also being bred at Altembrouck Château Estate, in Belgium and at Voelas Hall in Wales, UK.
 The programme continued only for 10 years. Japanese farmers complained that the new cross-breeds weren’t as good at field work as previous breeds, and so breeding efforts were discontinued.
In old Japanese, “wa” means “Japan”. “Gyu” can mean many things, but one of the meanings is “beef.”
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