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Wagyu Olympics picks winners with eye on beef industry's future

Superior marbling is no longer the only key standard for Japanese cattle

Oita Prefecture won the prize for best bull at the 11th Wagyu Olympics.

TOKYO -- The global popularity of Japanese premium beef and new competition have altered the judging process at the Wagyu Olympics, as organizers turn to productivity and other new criteria to help select this year's winners.

A record 513 cattle came to Sendai from all over Japan for the twice-a-decade contest, which wrapped up Monday. Kagoshima Prefecture took the top spot in the overall competition, dashing second-place Miyazaki Prefecture's hopes for three straight victories. Oita Prefecture took first for best bull, a prize evaluated on physique and pedigree, while Miyazaki won best beef cattle. 

Previous competitions tended to focus on marbling, the white streaks of fat in the meat, but organizers reviewed their standards since picking winners based on such criteria alone has reached its limit. Judges this year also looked at productivity and farmers' efforts to prepare for the future.

Oita Prefecture's prize-winning Hohi breeding association, for example, was praised for its work to improve the area as a whole rather than just individual farmers. Productivity tends to be limited since most mating requests are for first-place breeding cattle. More farmers can produce excellent cattle, however, if know-how is shared across the region. Members of the Oita Prefecture association attributed their success to the advice of other locals.

Japanese beef farmers are looking to export abroad as conditions in the domestic market tighten. Wholesale prices of high-quality wagyu on the Tokyo Meat Market, which handles brands throughout Japan, have fallen to around 2,200 yen to 2,400 yen ($20.16 to $22) per kilogram from a peak of more than 2,700 yen two years earlier. Calf prices, meanwhile, have risen 10% over the same period due to a shortage of breeders. 

Improving productivity is vital to absorbing higher costs, raising competitiveness and expanding exports. Wagyu exports climbed 23% in 2016 to 13.5 billion yen and are expected to grow further with Japan's new economic partnership with Europe. On the other hand, competition with other countries is also intensifying. Australian wagyu farmers attended this year's competition, and they said that although their capacity is still too small to hold a similar event back home, they have been visiting farms in Hokkaido and Hyogo prefectures to study and gather information. 

"We cannot avoid improving productivity when thinking about foreign competition," said one organizer.


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