It may be the most prized beef in the world, but Wagyu meat in South Africa has experienced a fourfold increase in consumption over the last year.
This has been confirmed by Johan de Vos, chairperson of the Wagyu Society of South Africa and its subsidiary, certified Wagyu Beef (CWB).
De Vos says where previously the country used to slaughter between 20 and 30 oxen a week, this has increased to 120 to 150 per week. Based on international trends the society predicts that this trajectory will continue for at least the next two decades.
According to De Vos this increase can be objectively proven from CWB data collected at nine abattoirs, spread across the country.
Wagyu beef from Japan is the most prized beef in the world. Earlier, Business Insider reported that high-grade wagyu can cost up to R3 000 per half a kilogram. The rarest steak in the world, olive Wagyu, can cost anywhere from R1 700 to over R4 400 for a steak.
Furthermore, De Vos confirms that over 90% of Wagyu carcasses are objectively graded using camera images for marble score and other traits. Marbling is the white flecks of intramuscular fat found in meat, most notably red meat.
The marble score is an objective measure of the amount of marbling. Increased marbling is strongly associated with increased juiciness and flavour and is the single most important attribute determining the grade of the carcass in countries such as Japan, the USA, Australia and New Zealand.
The higher the marble score the tastier the meat. Though cheaper to produce, the South African market has traditionally focused on lean carcass meat that is devoid of the soft fat called marbling.
Many leading scientists, however, agree that Wagyu beef is the healthiest beef produced and the mono-unsaturated/saturated fat ratio is up to 200% higher in Wagyu than other beef. Up to 50% of all marbling within a Wagyu carcass is made up of oleic acid (mono-unsaturated), while a smaller proportion is saturated fat. Wagyu has high levels of omega-3 and 6 fatty acids.
Global Wagyu shortage
De Vos also mentioned that the World Wagyu Council meeting with international members confirmed the worldwide shortage of the sought-after meat.
Britain has a deficit of at least 40%. Japan imports a significant amount of product from Australia and even the USA cannot get close to fulfilling their demand. Some restaurants in Britain sell Wagyu burgers for about R800.
Though we won’t necessarily ever see this in South Africa, Wagyu undoubtedly falls in the luxury foods category, says De Vos. He urges consumers to eat it in the Japanese way – in small portions and in fine strips because the higher the marbling, the finer the cut. It is often paired with appetisers in small dishes.
Wagyu biltong is becoming a South African favourite and is very popular at retail outlets.
De Vos reminds members of the difference that a year can make.
“Last year this time, we had feedlots full of oxen but most restaurants and international markets were closed. We now have good markets that have opened both locally and internationally and we are confident that we can continue to supply them unimpeded for at least the next three to six months,” he says.
He cautions, though, that many more cattle are needed to meet both the national and international demand. Wagyu can be found in most upmarket meat delis and all the large local retailers are supporting the product.
More farmers producing Wagyu
Dr Michael Bradfield, CEO of the Wagyu Society, gave some statistics about the growth of the breed that has gone from 30 members in 2016 to 150 members in 2021. The number of full-blood cows (cows with a direct and unimpeded linage to their ancestors in Japan) has increased from 430 in 2018 to 2 343 (30% above projection).
Bradfield mentioned that the World Wagyu Council, of which South Africa holds the current secretariat, allows a minimum 50% Wagyu crossbred to be defined as Wagyu. In South Africa, all Wagyu calves are parentage tested to the bull used to ensure compliance.
The system implemented by Wagyu in Mzansi ensures full traceability. The complete cow inventory has 14 440 cows breeding certified Wagyu. Certified Wagyu beef is fully traceable, has been DNA tested to ensure minimal breed percentage, and has a minimum marble score of 3. The score usually ranges from 3 to 9+.
Furthermore, a South African carcass with a marble score of 15 made international headlines in December 2020. Bradfield urges consumers to look out for the certified Wagyu beef logo on the packaging because this proves authenticity and reliability of the product.
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