The following is a revised edition of my original posting with a bit added to the front about “Certified Angus Beef”… I wanted to keep the original story strictly on Wagyu and what Dr. Patinkin was doing at her farm, but I wanted to shed light on the differences between truly high grade beef, and a bunch of high grade bull!
Walking through my favorite grocery store a few weeks ago I was perusing the meat case and drawing inspiration for that evening’s menu. I came upon the beef and saw that it had a whole separate section devoted to “100 % Certified Angus Beef.” The theory being that this beef is the crème de la crème of the beef world based solely on the breed. Why, just ask anybody in the American Angus Association they’ll tell you how awesome their beef is. I should have come up with a similar “100 % CAS” system in high school, which stands for 100% Certified A Student. I would have seen to it that I was fully certified, although it would have meant the same thing…almost nothing.
I got home and started flipping through some websites devoted to angus beef, and found out some interesting things. To be considered Certified Angus Beef, the animal needs to be 51% black cattle with angus influence. The Certified Angus Beef website will give you ten really important criteria that it has to meet to become certified, but after reading between the lines you begin to realize that for all the “certification” that’s done, the grade is still based on the USDA grading system or select, choice and prime. Certified Angus Beef LLC doesn’t own the cattle or the product…only the Certified Angus Beef trademark which everybody has to pay licensing fees to use. Certified Angus Beef is in turn owned by the American Angus Association.
This isn’t about bashing the “CAB” name, this is about calling out something for what it is, or isn’t. If the USDA chooses to grade CAB choice, then it is choice and it is no different from any other choice cut of meat, and the same thing applies to prime which for the purpose of this part of the discussion, is as high as it goes. I knew most of these things for the past few years being in the food industry, it’s just part of shop talk. But now sitting down and reading all the information together makes me realize just what kind of bull, it really is.
So I thought to myself, well what about Kobe or Wagyu beef?
What did I know about Wagyu beef? Almost nothing, but then again I didn’t know a lot about Sponge Bob Square Pants so I guess I’m not setting the bar very high. Then I met Dr. Sheila Patinkin who owns and operates Spring-Rock Farm in Springfield, VT. She was inspired to start farming by her cousin who raises Wagyu in Montana, and bought 20 Embryos from Washington State that resulted in 11 Calves. She now has 54 full blooded Wagyu. Her Herdsman is Phil Ranney, a 7th generation dairy farmer from Westminster West, VT. I’m thinking I’m going to be learning a lot about Wagyu cattle.
While at my mother’s house last week I saw an article in the newspaper about Wagyu. I must have noticed it on the way to the comic section. It was a fascinating read about somebody who truly seemed to be doing it right. She was using rotational grazing, grass fed, 100% purebred Wagyu, and this Dr. Patinkin was very hands on with regards to everything that happened on the farm. This was counter intuitive to everything I had known about the beef industry. I looked this Spring-Rock Farm up online and started reading somewhat skeptically. It basically said everything I had just read in the newspaper up to and including 75 head of Wagyu is what they are aiming for. This is amazing, how or why is this woman doing this? What is she hiding or rather, what am I missing. I needed to do some clarifying, and if this was all true. It’s incredible!
I started to do a little research before I called Dr. Patinkin, I’ll paint you in broad strokes what I learned about Wagyu…
Kobe beef comes from 100% Wagyu cattle that are fabricated (slaughtered) in the Hyōgo Prefecture of Japan. There are a few other qualifications like a BMS of 6 (BMS is the marbling ratio, we’ll talk more about that in a second) and a meat quality score of four or five. The thing that I found fascinating is that grain and other feeds, not to mention land for grazing is so very expensive in Japan to the point it is cost prohibitive to raise them there. Wagyu cattle are now being bred, born, fed and raised to Japanese specifications in America and Australia then shipped back to Kobe for fabrication and by doing so, is magically transformed into Kobe Beef. If the same animals were slaughtered here in the states they would just be considered Wagyu.
BMS or Marbling Ratio is the scale (used in Australia) used to grade Wagyu Beef as The USDA grade of “Prime” isn’t high enough for the level of marbling in Wagyu beef! Marbling, by the way, is the amount of intramuscular fat in the beef, not the amount of fat on the outside of the cut. A USDA Prime cut of filet mignon would equal about a 4 or 5 on the BMS scale, While Wagyu regularly hit anywhere from 9 to 12 (12 being the highest rating) on the BMS scale. Yes people, Wagyu are loaded with fat, but not just any fat. Here is how the Wagyu differentiate themselves from all other beef. The fat in a Wagyu is higher in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fat, Lower in saturated fat, and higher in poly-unsaturated fat that any other beef. The other anomaly about the fat is that it starts to melt at 77F where as other beef fat starts to melt at around 95F. Because of its melting point, a Wagyu steak or burger should never be cooked beyond medium-rare as the fat will melt to the point where the meat will effectively become a puddle of cooked proteins and lipids. When cooked correctly however, only a fork is needed to cut this amazing meat.
This is all so amazing can it be true? Well for the most part…sadly, it’s not. As it turns out, to be considered for Wagyu designation it only has to be 25% actual Wagyu and the rest….you guessed it, black cattle. The most predominant one would be Angus. The U.S. consumers refused to buy Wagyu when it first started hitting the market because it was “too white.” So they started crossing the Wagyu with other cattle breeds to make the meat leaner. The added benefit was to the ranchers as it made lesser cattle rate higher on the USDA scale which in turn made them more money. The cost of Wagyu was also prohibitive to consumers, and prevented most from wanting to buy it as 100% pure. Kobe goes for up to five hundred dollars a pound, and Wagyu can go for as much as three hundred dollars a pound. The Kobe you can understand as it has to cross the Pacific Ocean twice before it gets to your table.
Then there’s the rarity, today in the United States, there are only between three and five thousand purebred Wagyu, compare that with around thirty million angus. So this leads me to believe that the market would dictate weakening a truly special animal by diluting its heritage with other cattle and basically bastardizing it for the sake of a dollar. Plentiful black cattle bred with Wagyu make higher graded USDA beef, because of their natural genetic ability to produce plentiful intramuscular fat. This would make inexpensive cattle more valuable and more valuable cattle inexpensive. The problem is once you dilute this noble Wagyu breed, you can’t get it back here in the United States. Since 1996 Japan has closed down trade of all Wagyu animals and all Wagyu Genetics such as semen or embryos.
I read about several ranches advertising grass fed Wagyu, and basically they’re only between fifty to eighty percent total Wagyu. They eat mostly grass, until just before slaughter when the producer puts them on a diet of grain grass, then snips n snail’s n puppy dog tails after that. They were feeding them things that ruminants were never really meant to eat in the first place such as grape skins, almond hulls and various other non-grass feeds.
I called Dr. Patinkin the day after researching the Wagyu, and left a message. About an hour later she called me back. “This is Sheila Patinkin.”” Sheila? Sheila who?!” “OH, hi Sheila…I’m sorry, wouldn’t you prefer Doctor Patinkin” I asked?” No….Sheila is Fine” she assured me. I pulled my truck over and explained I hadn’t expected her to call so quick and I didn’t have my notes, but off the top of my head I could think of two nagging questions if I could just ask those I wouldn’t take up any more of her time. She told me I could ask those and whenever I wanted to I could just call her back later when I had my notes.
Do you feed them grain in the winter? What protein percentage? I figured that was a foregone conclusion that, of course they were eating grain. “No, no grain” She said, “Just hay.” Just hay?! I told her what really struck me about the whole article was that she wanted to keep small and get no larger than 75 head of full blooded Wagyu. Why 75? “Because I won’t really get to know my animals if it gets any larger than that, so 75 is the number I want to stay at.” She proceeded to talk with me for about thirty to forty minutes about how she is involved in the choosing of the breeding stock, the feeding, field testing the pasture as well as the hay to make sure their nutritional needs are met, and day to day care of the animals.
Sheila went to high school about a mile down the road from where her farm is, before going off to college to study economics. I met her at her home to have a look at the animals and talk with her a bit. I arrived just as she finished baking some cookies. (It’s kind of a gift of mine to show up, just as food is about to come out of the oven) Sheila, it said in the article that you were a pediatrician? “I was…well, am…I’m recently retired, but I renewed my license so I could give back to the community by perhaps helping out some underprivileged children If I can ever find some time.” How did you go from economics to medicine? She kind of blushed, “I was married with four kids before I went to medical school.” “I went kind of late in life, and people told me I was crazy for doing it, or didn’t think I could do it, but now I have an MD attached to my name, so I guess I did.” “I don’t like when somebody tells me I can’t do something.”
My guess is, this doesn’t happen much anymore. She is truly a charming woman, with a personality that just makes you feel good to be around her. As we walked, she would point to each of her animals and tell me their names, telling me what or whom they were named after and who their parents were. I asked if she had any other animals, she said “Chickens, mostly for some fresh eggs, and a little meat. We have so many eggs in the summer I sell them for two bucks a dozen, mostly to neighbors.” I wished she was my neighbor! She led me to breeding charts, where she explained who the father was, what his history was and the history of all his offspring. What are the criteria you breed for Sheila? “We breed for marbling, size, and milk production.” Milk production, you milk these Wagyu? “Well they are not very good milk producers, so feeding their offspring is a challenge. The calves all drink from their mothers until about three to five months.” How do you know when to wean them? She laughed and said, “Growth charts, just like with kids, well I was in pediatrics so it’s kind of an old habit.”
I asked who she would be marketing the meat to. She told me she wanted to sell locally (New York/New England) aimed at farm to table restaurants. How’s that going I asked? “Kind of slow, it’s difficult to get in touch with some chefs, even if their restaurant markets itself as farm to table, but it’ll be fine.” Just fine indeed, recently she was able to sell a side from her first animal that will be fabricated next month to Gramercy Tavern in NYC with Chef Michael Anthony at the helm. She has a few other promising leads with some fantastic chefs and restaurants as well. The other marketable products Sheila has are Genetics and a couple of years from now, calves. Because the Wagyu she has are all 100% pure, people call all the time asking for semen, embryos or live calves, so at the end of the day, I know she is going to be a success.
I left her farm that day with three things. 1) A clear mind, thanks to being a big klutz. While closing a field gate, I leaned into the electric fence. (Pretty sure I found a temporary cure for A.D.D.) 2) A clear understanding of how the meat industry should work in a perfect world, but never will because of the sheer amount of work involved and the lack of return on investment. It’s always easier to just do things the mediocre way by making money without a thought given to the animal’s welfare, the consumer’s wallet, or the dishonest relationship with the consumer themselves.
The Third and most important thing I left with… Hope, because no matter what happens elsewhere in the beef industry. I know that as long as Sheila is there doing what she does, at least on that one small farm that it’s being done right. She’s doing it with respect, care, and a belief that it’s the only way you can do this. Because it’s what the breed deserves, it’s certainly what her animals deserve, and it’s what you deserve, every time you eat something that she helped produce.