All beef cattle are only a bolt-gun away from death, but life before the steel bullet is better for some than others. Much better. Quite simply, if your flesh brings the highest price on the planet — expect a bit of pampering. And in the case of Japan’s wagyu cattle; that price can reach $1,760 per pound.
From Spiegel: “In light-filled barns, the cattle eat fresh hay soaked in beer, while the music of Simon & Garfunkel plays in the background. An electric feed mixing cart quietly distributes wheat bran. The lights are dimmed at night, and massage brushes rotate along the walls.” (Granted, trapped in a barn with hours of Simon & Garfunkel tunes might be hell instead of heaven to some. Just saying.) Wagyu beef is supposed to have an aromatic flavoring unique to itself. “Wagyu meat doesn’t get tender and buttery because the animals are pampered, but rather as a result of what they are fed. In the last six months of their lives, they eat nothing but beets, soybeans, potatoes and grain.”
The Spiegel article describes the idyllic life of cattle belonging to German farmer Rudiger Marquardt. Germany is the latest to punch the wagyu ticket, following the United States, Australia, Argentina and China. There is a tremendous amount of wagyu money to be made globally — and the Japanese are not happy about it. Beginning in 1976, approximately 200 wagyus were exported to the West, and Japan has regretted it ever since. “Although there are about 750,000 wagyus in Japan, they are considered a national treasure and exporting the animals is illegal.”
The wagyu market is flooded with false advertising, fakes and diluted bloodlines — as detailed by Forbes’ Larry Olmstead. But Olmstead also makes it clear that some wagyu blood has remained pure: “There are … breeders who imported traditional Japanese beef cows before the ban and have continued to breed them in a 100 percent pure manner, and have documented these unadulterated bloodlines, and offer something that is as close to pure wagyu as you will find here, but they are in the minority among those many claiming to sell wagyu.”
Pure wagyu — the holy grail for some in the beef industry — does exist; and it drives a raging suppy-and-demand market. (For example, Less than 30 wagyu were processed in Germany last year.)
As Japan asserts, the international wagyu market is filled with counterfeits, but the Japanese home market was rocked in June by bombshell allegations. From the Wall Street Journal: “… three former managers of a farm that offered investors a ‘wagyu beef ownership system’ guaranteeing annual returns of up to 8 percent were arrested on suspicion of misleading consumers.”
The farm was selling phantom cows. When the wagyu ponzi scheme collapsed, investors were left holding an empty bag that should have contained $4.34 billion — a staggering amount of faith in the wagyu market. The case has been “dubbed the biggest consumer fraud incident in recent Japanese history.”
Adulteration and scandals aside, the German beef industry is hanging in and expects a long ride. In July, a small, 10-month old became the first wagyu ever sold at auction. When the gavel stopped pounding — the little wagyu sold for $13,000.
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