That Kobe Beef You’re Eating….It’s Not Kobe Beef (Unless You’re In Japan)

That Kobe Beef You're Eating....It's Not Kobe Beef (Unless You're In Japan)

I’m on vacation, sort of.  Visiting some family in Las Vegas.  I was rambling through the strip the other day and stopped to lose five dollars in a penny slot machine.  That’s about my tolerance for gambling.  What does that have to do with Kobe beef?  I’m getting there…

I was playing a machine on the edge of a walkway in the Wynn.  I have some misguided sense that perhaps the machines closest to the floor traffic might pay out better.  They don’t.  I am fully aware of this.  I still try to force the issue.  I had just about finished losing my five bucks when a very unhappy older gentleman came walking my way, wife in tow.

“Do you like sushi?”

When I answered affirmative he handed me a card.

“I hate sushi.  Enjoy it.”  And with that he and his wife walked out into the blazing sun.  Okay then.  He’d gotten a comp from the casino for $100 at the sushi restaurant, Wazuzu.  I had to imagine that if the casino had seen fit to comp him a hundred-dollar meal, he could have chosen the restaurant or requested a different one.  Clearly he didn’t feel the same way.

I’ll spare you the details.  $100 doesn’t go that far at Wazuzu.  They have a twenty-foot long crystal dragon adorning red silk walls.  Your local happy hour sushi joint this is not.  One of the items I ordered was Kobe Beef Tiradito.  For $45 dollars.  I love a good high quality piece of beef.  I was a bit dubious so I asked what I was really getting.  I got a puzzled look from the server.  She read me verbatim the description I’d just read.  I asked what kind of beef.  Another puzzled look.  She told me “It’s Kobe beef.”  I thought about arguing the point further but thought better of it and kept my mouth shut.  I was using someone else’s comp after all.  Why so dubious?

You can’t get Kobe Beef outside of Japan and Macau.  You can not order it.  You can not get it shipped.  You can not buy it in a store, in a restaurant, or even over the internet.  It is illegal for it to enter the US.  No exceptions.  Not an issue with muddy waters.  If you’ve not had Kobe Beef in Japan, you’ve not had Kobe Beef.  No matter how much you paid.  No matter what anyone tells you.  If you’re told otherwise – they’re lying.  No way around that.

So what exactly are you buying here and at the thousands of other restaurants in the US that now sell Kobe Beef?  Kobe style beef.  Seems like splitting hairs.  It isn’t.  If you’d like an analog it’s a bit like Champagne.  Champagne is grown from certain grapes, in a certain region, and is certified as such.  Grow the same grapes in the US and you can call it Champagne – but it isn’t.

Kobe beef is the same way.  Kobe beef in Japan is a registered trademark of the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (神戸肉流通推進協議会 Kōbeniku Ryūtsū Suishin Kyōgikai).  If it’s going to be called Kobe beef, it’s got to meet ALL of the following requirements.

  • It must be a pure bread Tajima cattle born in Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan.  That’s a specific lineage and blood line.  No exceptions.
  • The animals must be farm fed in Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan.  That means that only grains, food, and water from that specific area can be used.
  • The animal must be a virgin cow or castrated bull, to ensure the purity the beef
  • The animals must be processed at slaughterhouses in Kobe, Nishinomiya, Sanda, Kakogawa and Himeji in Hyōgo Prefecture.
  • Marbling ratio, called BMS, of level 6 and above.  Marbling is the ratio of fat to muscle.  Heavily marbled meat has a lot of fat interspersed.  It looks like this.
  • Meat Quality Score of 4 or 5.  The MQS scores on marbling, color and brightness, firmness and texture, and the fat color, luster, and quality.  The higher the score the better, topping out at 5.  Whatever category scores the lowest is the score.  So if a piece of meat scores five in every category but one, that lower score is the total MQS.
  • Finally the gross weight of beef from one animal is 470 kg or less (that’s roughly 1050 pounds for us Yanks.)

If any one of those conditions isn’t met – it’s not Kobe beef.  Other practices seem to circulate around the lore of Kobe beef; they’re fed beer, their coats are rubbed down with sake, and they receive massages on a regular basis.  To be clear, none of the former are required for a certification and mostly has been proven myth.

To give you an idea of scale, there are only 3,000 head of certified Kobe Beef cattle in the world, and none live anywhere outside Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan.  The process is so strict that when the beef is sold, either in stores or restaurants, it must carry the 10-digit serial number so customers can literally tell exactly which Tajima-gyu cow it came from.  Think about that next time you buy a package of ground beef at the market.  What cow(s) did that come from?  What state did it come from?  Who knows.

So what exactly are you buying on your supermarket shelf or your neighborhood bistro when you order Kobe sliders?  It’s Kobe-style beef, perhaps.  These are domestically raised Wagyū crossbred with Angus cattle.  Farms in America and Britain, New Zealand and Australia have attempted to replicate the Kobe traditions, even going so far as providing their Wagyū herds with beer.  U.S meat producers claim that any differences between their less expensive “Kobe-style” beef and true Kobe beef are largely cosmetic.  Real Kobe beef has so much marbling that there’s a ton of white in the meat.  Americans don’t find that palatable, so producers have adapted a redder color for their US consumers.

However the cattle are fed local grass and grain, which is different from the more expensive Japanese feed.  Most producers raise free range, antibiotic and hormone free cattle, fed on grass.  Laudable.  But not Kobe beef.  Cuts of American “Kobe-style” beef tend to have darker meat and a bolder flavor.

As an unregulated term, the American government enables vendors to misuse the Kobe name, charging customers high prices under false pretenses.  The US banned beef imports from Japan in 2010, over fears of hoof and mouth disease.  Had the ban not gone into place, the strict export restrictions that Japan itself imposes means that little if any real Kobe beef made its way to this continent.  Now it’s unquestionably none.  Ever.  If you really do have some Kobe in the US – someone managed a hell of a job smuggling it in.

Despite the fact that Kobe Beef (as well as Kobe Meat and Kobe Cattle) are patented terms and/or trademarks in Japan, these are neither recognized nor protected by U.S. law.  As far as regulators here are concerned, Kobe beef, unlike say Champagne or Florida Orange Juice, means nothing.

Google Kobe beef online and you’ll find plenty of places that would love to sell you some fake Kobe.  Sorry to single you guys out – but for the sake of an example the Prawn Corporation of America has Kobe listed on it’s site.  From Japan.  $99 a pound.

“Kobe beef is a quality luxury food from Japan. Kobe beef is a special grade of beef from (Wagyu) cattle raised in Kobe, Japan. These cattle are massaged with sake and are fed a daily diet that includes large amounts of beer. This produces meat that is extraordinarily tender, finely marbled, and full-flavored.”

While that statement is entirely true – the beef they ship you can’t and won’t be Kobe beef.  So fake Kobe beef or $99 a pound.  Because you didn’t know any better.  Nice.  I asked for some clarification from the company and was hung up on.  Nice.

Seattle, LA, New York, Boston, Vegas – almost any decent sized city will have dozens of restaurants who’d love to serve you some “Kobe beef.”  Even the New York Times perpetuates this falsehood in its restaurant reviews, I read the paper every Sunday and I wince when I think that the Times employs someone who doesn’t know or care about the difference.  So pervasive is this misnomer that the CT Department of Agriculture is ecstatic to point out they have Kobe and Wagyū beef producers in their state.  No you don’t.

So there’s really only one reason beef is called Kobe beef in this country.  Money.  Sadly it’s because US regulators allow producers call ANYTHING Kobe beef.  I could buy burgers from McDonald’s, repackage them as Kobe-style beef, and sell them at $20 a pop.  Nothing illegal or improper as far as the government is concerned.  The reason you and I want to buy it is because the cattle industry in Kobe spent eons building a reputation of peerless quality.  Unfortunately it’s a reputation that’s being stolen by US producers.  And restaurants.  And supermarkets.

That leaves you and I in a funny place.  I’d walk away from anything I see labelled as Kobe beef.  Simple as that.  If they’re willing to lie right to your face, who knows what else the producer is “fudging.”  What about Kobe-style of Wagyū beef?  That doesn’t mean anything either.  Wagyū translates literally to Japanese cow, so American Wagyū means American Japanese beef.  American producers of fake Kobe talk about the fact that Kobe really just means a style of raising cattle.  That’s a lie.  A blatant one too.  Even if they had the exact blood lines and followed all the standards.  It’s not Kobe beef.  You could transport a whole damn farm to the United States and as soon as it left Japan – it ceases to be Kobe.  Just like Champagne can’t be Champagne if it’s not grown, produced, and bottled in the Champagne region of France.

I bought my “Kobe” Beef Tiradito as a bit of an experiment.  I wasn’t paying, I was curious what the wait staff would say when pressed about its origins, and it was still a tasty dish, no doubt.  Was it $45 tasty?  No.  Was it Kobe beef?  No.  I have no idea what kind of meat was used, where it came from, or how it was raised.  If I’m looking for a nice cut of meat I’ll pay for something that’s certified grass-fed, hormone free, and antibiotic free.  I’ll even do a little research into the farm to see what their story is.  I’ll pay a premium for something I can verify but if it’s my own money leaving my wallet, I won’t buy anything labelled Kobe.  Period.

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