Why Is Wagyu Beef So Expensive?

Hint: It has to do with marbling.

Marbling Japanese beef, raw beef, fresh meat. Wagyu beef macro. Beef wagyu with marbling texture.rainieC/Shutterstock

If you’re a meat eater, you may have heard of Wagyu beef—expensive meat from native Japanese beef cattle. Here’s everything you need to know about this unique meat, and why it’s so pricy.

What is Wagyu beef?

Wagyu beef is a special Japanese breed of beef cattle, according to Alicia Rooker, an editor for Taste of Home, an RD.com sister site. The phrase is quite literal: “Wa” means Japanese and “gyu” means cow, per the American Wagyu Association. These animals have extreme tie-dyed-like marbling, or intra-muscular fat cells, which makes their meat rich, juicy, tender, and thus more expensive and in-demand. “Wagyu fat melts at a lower temperature than other stakes, resulting in a rich, buttery flavor,” Rooker says. “This fat is also unsaturated and high in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.” You can get other essential nutrients from and make meat part of a healthy diet if you feast on the five best types of meats to eat—but avoid these two.

Why is Wagyu beef so expensive?

There are four Wagyu breeds in Japan including the Japanese Black (the kind the United States receives the most), Japanese Brown (Americans call this Red Wagyu,) and Japanese Shorthorn. Japan heavily regulates all Wagyu beef production, and progeny testing is mandatory, Rooker says. This ensures people have only the highest quality meat, adding to the price. Some 183 animals came to the United States between 1976 and 1997, before Japan stopped exporting these cattle. Although the Japanese government banned further export of Wagyu cattle, there is still some production in the United States. More American ranchers are actually raising Wagyu breeds domestically with cattle registration in America increasing 400 percent over the past five years, Vice reports. This increase is only a drop in the bucket of 94.8 million head of cattle that are in the United States as of January 2019, per the USDA. So although there’s more breeding in the United States, the product is still a smaller operation and thus an exclusive, high-end, pricy good.

What’s the difference between Wagyu and Kobe beef?

Asking the difference between Kobe beef and Wagyu is a trick question. There are different levels or strains of Wagyu, and Kobe beef comes from the Tajima-Gyu strain—and is more rare and expensive than Wagyu, Rooker says. Only 3,000 cattle actually qualify as authentic Kobe cattle each year, according to Rooker. Other strains include Fujiyoshi, Kedaka, and Red Wagyu, per the Texas Wagyu Association. Rarity is also one of the reasons why truffles are so expensive.

If you happen to cook some Wagyu like this, Rooker recommends a simple method. First, sprinkle the beef with a little salt and pepper. Then, sear it in a cast-iron pan, like this one, over high heat for three to four minutes. Enjoy with a salad or carb-y side.

The taste and sheer exclusivity are what makes Wagyu beef so expensive.

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is a former staff writer at Reader’s Digest. There’s a 90% chance Emily is drinking tea right now, but when she’s not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts and liking one too many astrology memes.