Watching individual high-quality Wagyu carcases sell for the equivalent of $17,000 Australian left an indelible impression on the Australian Wagyu Trade Mission tour group on the first day of their 2017 study tour to Japan.

The visit to Tokyo’s famous Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market was one of the first destinations on the two-week study tour itinerary.

The publicly-owned facility in the inner-city area of Shinagawa is the largest wholesale meat centre in Japan, accounting for more than 130,000 beef carcases sold each year, plus 210,000 bodies of pork.

While some carcases are transported in for sale from other locations, the centre also provides Japan’s largest abattoir service, processing about 90,000 head of cattle each year.

What’s surprising about that is that it happens efficiently and almost anonymously, in the middle of a heaving city of 32 million people. The facility, from the outside, bears no resemblance to a typical Australian abattoir facility, looking like any other large commercial-type building in the metropolis. The only cue to its purpose is a massive cold storage vehicle loading bay at one end, and a small livestock receiving area.

The main auction sale room carries an overhead rail, on which the catalogue of each day’s sale carcases progresses. Each carcase is rolled forward, and a gallery of accredited buyers, representing 25 or 30 meat wholesale groups and large retailers, crowds around with torches to inspect each body for marbling and other traits. Carcases by this stage has been independently graded and branded for meat quality and yield, using a 22-point set of criteria. Yield is based on an A-C grade, and meat quality 1-5, with the ultimate ‘A5’ carcases amounting to only 1-2pc of bodies sold each day.

Carcass weights were incredible, by Australian standards, with 500kg bodies common, and even 600kg bodies reasonably routine. Some bodies recently have broken the scales at more than 700kg.

Unlike open auction familiar in Australia, the method of sale was a silent auction, with each wholesaler representative using a small wireless device in his pocket to post bids on each individual carcase, displayed on a giant screen above the auction area. The very best carcases could be up to ten times the value of base level carcases, the group was told.

Carcases from crossbred Wagyu cattle typically sold for around 1500 Yen per kg, while Fullblood carcases sold in a typical range from 2000 to 3000 Yen per kg, depending on quality. One of the best carcases to pass through the auction during the Australian visit made 2700 Yen/kg, valuing the 550kg carcase at 1.485 million Yen, or the equivalent of about $17,000 Australian. The AWA tour group was told that the last day of the month, trading volume was down because most buyers had already hit their inventory targets for the month. Today’s catalogue involved about 400 bodies, while regular sales account for an average of 500, split roughly equally between Fullblood (purebred) Wagyu, and crossbreds. The cattle came from a large area of Japan, including the northern island region of Hokkaido.

Food safety and sanitation control were high priorities, the tour group was told. More than 16 years after Japan’s isolated BSE event, every single carcase slaughtered is still tested for BSE, with all specified risk (nervous system) material removed and destroyed in high-temperature furnaces.