FEATURE: Japan promoting "mother cow" ethical wagyu exports

© Kyodo News

Japan is advancing an initiative to export a new type of wagyu -- lean, healthy beef from refattened mother cows, typically processed but still bursting with umami flavor.

The effort is a win-win for the local exporter and breeder of the animals, which are appealing to the tastes of overseas customers and the emphasis they place on animal welfare in livestock breeding, with those concerned attracted by the new wagyu from the standpoint of ethical meat production.

As part of the initiative, the government-backed Japan External Trade Organization and the Japanese Embassy in Switzerland organized an event in Bern to provide local meat purveyors and restaurants with samples of a nicely marbled wagyu steak from the Jukuho Farm in Shimane Prefecture, western Japan.

At the Oct. 14 event in the Swiss capital, Ginkakuji Onishi, a meat exporter and processing company in Kyoto, and Jukuho Farm -- two major promoters of wagyu derived from older animals in Japan -- presented the product to about 30 participants, mainly Swiss importers, retailers, butchers and chefs from prestigious restaurants.

Newly launched products such as wagyu salami of the same variety were also on offer for tasting.

Wagyu beef is known worldwide for its rich marbling, soft texture as well as exceptional flavor. It is one of the most expensive and luxurious meats in the world.

The wagyu industry traditionally focuses on young animals aged 27 to 30 months because of the tenderness of their high-priced meat, but cows aged 90 to 100 months, which have given birth multiple times, are usually butchered for low-priced processed or minced meats.

At Jukuho Farm, mother cows, previously considered to be of low value, are purchased and examined in detail for growth and feed consumption. By individually feeding each cow, Jukuho Farm was able to produce meat with moderate fat content at a low price.

Jukuho Farm procures mother cows from all over Japan, provides them with high-quality feed enriched with yeast and vitamins, and a stress-free environment, according to the company's president Shuhei Ishitobi, 32.

Wagyu meat is usually aged for a period of time after it is butchered, in a process of dry aging or wet aging, but Jukuho Farm says the meat from its cows is aging while the animal is still alive as "the meat quality changes and the meat becomes aged with umami components like amino acids," according to its website.

"Mother cows (for wagyu) are still not a favorite in Japan, but I'm happy there are people who acknowledge that they are not high in fat content and are delicious," said Ishitobi.

Some people feel that the tender, marbled meat, which is preferred in Japan, has a weaker taste because it comes from younger animals, but the deliciousness of meat from older cows appears to be much more accepted in Europe, where there has been a positive response to the new wagyu.

Hideki Onishi, 32, the overseas division manager at Ginkakuji Onishi, is hopeful of expanding the market for mother cow meat, which, he says, in addition to the robust aroma peculiar to wagyu, also has a deep umami flavor.

Ginkakuji Onishi buys about 30 mother cows from Jukuho Farm every month and exports the wagyu beef to eight countries, including Singapore, Italy, France and the Netherlands.

In coordination with the private sector, Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has further promoted wagyu beef exports, which have been expanding sharply in recent years.

In July, the ministry launched a new bureau to boost exports of farm products to diversify from a domestic market that is shrinking due to Japan's aging population and declining birth rate.

After approximately six months, the older mother cows are butchered for their wagyu meat. This wagyu beef production method is largely unknown in Japan, Onishi says.

"I thought of exporting the meat overseas first, as Japan still does not understand the importance of efficiency in meat production," Onishi said.

He hopes this concept that has succeeded in the European market will, in turn, spark interest among Japanese consumers.

After tasting the new wagyu at the event, a butcher from a high-end Swiss store that already sells regular wagyu from Japan, Spain and Australia said, "It is fantastic. It melts in the mouth."

The butcher said he would have liked to see raw pieces of meat to judge their quality. The price will also be a decisive element, he added.

Consumers in Switzerland are increasingly sensitive to animal welfare, judging cruel methods of livestock breeding, such as the use of cages in poultry farming, as unacceptable.

A Swiss importer of wagyu beef and other food products said the ethical aspect of new style wagyu is "sensational" and builds a strong case for the product's marketability.

However, the importer said it is crucial to raise awareness among consumers about the differences between regular and mother cow wagyu meat.