Marble smoothness, fatty acid profiles, new horizons for wagyū breeding


Differences in value of up to A$600 were seen at the Japanese wholesale meat market between wagyu carcasses of the same weight and degree of marble coloration, but differ only in the smoothness or coarseness of the marbles they display.

This significant price discrimination represents another potential future area for genetic selection – and profits – for Australian wagyu breeders.

The fineness of the marble, which is different from the huge amount of marble evident in the corpse, is a feature of great importance in the Japanese wagyu industry, members of AWA Japan Wagyu Tour I heard this week near Obihiro.

As seen in these pictures, fine marbles have a web-like appearance, while coarser marbles appear in fat within the muscles in larger lumps or streaks. The two images here show carcasses graded exactly the same overall grade as marble, but expressed in two different forms, fine and coarse.

While the Japanese manual car rating assessment is based on the quantity (or abundance) of marble only, the Japanese MIJ View Camera (see separate day report) can analyze both the quality and quantity of the marble.

As part of this work, Professor Keijo Kuchida From Obihiro Veterinary University in Hokkaido this week, he outlined progress in his development of a new Softness Index (NFI) to better distinguish from the marble smoothness of Wagyu carcasses.

“For wagyu breeders – not just those in Japan, but all over the world – the serenity of marble is an important trend,” he told the Australian Travel Group.

While the softness of marble is not recognized in the Japan Meat Classification Society’s rating grades, it is clear that the Japanese meat trade paid more for the wagyu carcasses that express marbled smooth to the touch.

Aussie Wagyu group cruises on the artificial beach at the Aussie Beach Club in central Tokyo, where Australian beef and lamb are served. Click on the image for larger view.

Professor Kuchida used the example of two corpses, both BMS grade 8 marbled and 500 kg cadaver weight, but one expressing a coarse marble, the other a finer one. The market price difference at a Japanese auto auction held in August was between 5-10%, or in this particular example, it was worth about A$600.

However, he cautioned that while the genetic improvement in marble abundance in Japan since the late 1990s has continued to rise, the improvement in marble smoothness has slowed. He suggested that if the BMS marble continued to progress as it did, the average degree of marble smoothness in Japanese Wagyu carcasses might decline.

Professor Kuchida said that without the use of the MIJ camera, the bodies could not be calculated for the new smoothness index.

It was suggested that non-food items should become a very important selection criterion for Australian wagyu breeding programmes.

“Someday, the quality of Australian wagyu may actually be higher than that of Japan, because of the interest shown in the fineness of marble in your country. The Australian Wagyu Society is very advanced in this field,” he said.

There was more variation in marble softness in Wagyu cows than in marble abundance, providing a significant opportunity for genetic selection.

“The heritability of purity is very high,” Professor Kuchida said.

Data collection

The Australian Wagyu Society has had access to new Softness Index information over the past 18 months, and now routinely collects data on the trait as part of its MIJ imaging work.

“We are accumulating data quickly and will evaluate that in our next BreedPlan,” AWA Matt McDonagh He said.

“We are fully aware that it is an important trait that contributes to the quality of wagyu meat and we routinely report marble accuracy in our branded beef competitions,” he said.

The widespread uptake of objective MIJ technology in Australia means that Australia can make significant gains when tools such as the new Smoothness Index are available.

At this point, there is no clear evidence that Australian Wagyu beef is subject to price differentials that acknowledge the softness of the marble, as is already the case in Japan.

“But a few years from now, it could become part of pricing structures, rewarding those marble carcasses with a finer texture. That is why we need performance data for selection purposes now,” said Dr. McDonagh.

Analysis on the composition of fatty acids

Additional discussion during this week’s visit to Obihiro University focused on new research work investigating the possibility of on-rail analysis of fatty acid profiles in Wagyu cadavers.

Published scientific data indicate that the fatty acid composition of wagyū varies widely, and is strongly influenced by genetics, making it reasonably easy to select animals with desirable unsaturated fats such as omega-3.

The Australian wagyu industry has three NIRS on-demand. Widely used in a range of agricultural commodities, NIR technology measures the spectra of an inversion pattern – one of which relates to the binding in fatty acids found in beef.

The mono- or saturated fatty acids have a different NIR fingerprint than the unsaturated sample.

The Japanese wagyu industry is already moving toward fatty acid evaluation, measuring the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats in a carcass somewhere near the rib of the eye. The technology is already in use in 20 Japanese Wagyu beef processing facilities – mainly for genetic improvement (the softer the wagyu fat, the more valuable it is).

It appears that no claims have been made for a wagyu product along the lines of “this sample of wagyu is particularly high in trans fats”, but the possibility exists sometime in the future.

It is also possible that fatty acid composition will at some point become a feature that the Australian wagyu industry will include in genetic analysis.

“Besides cadaver productivity, it will be one of the next big targets for genetic analysis in our Wagyu,” AWA’s Matt McDonagh said during yesterday’s tour.

“Revenue has been a constant driver in the genetic improvement of Japanese wagyu for decades, and we haven’t focused on it yet. But the Australian industry now has the critical mass to obtain massive amounts of data that will allow us to improve our genetics in areas such as yield and fatty acid profiles very quickly.”

  • Watch today’s round two item about the turnout for Meat Image Japan’s objective body assessment camera


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