If you go down to your favorite burger or steak joint, chances are, you will see a Kobe beef burger on the menu. Americans buy it by the pound, thinking it is some delicacy, imported straight from Japan, and thus pay an exorbitant fee for the privilege.
Unfortunately, the Kobe beef in America is a lie.
Yes, the beef is a lie.
History of Kobe Beef
Kobe refers to beef from the black Tajima breed of Wagyu cattle, from the Hyogo prefecture in Japan. Before becoming a prized dinner, Tajima cattle were used as work animals in the rice fields as early as the second century. Due to herd isolation and feeding techniques, the cattle are now known meat with a well-marbled texture and tenderness.
To be considered Kobe, cattle must have been born in the prefecture and raised on local grasses and water, and must be a bull or virgin cow. From there, it is processed in a Hyogo slaughterhouse and held to strict government standards (such as weight, marbling ratio, etc.).
There are only 3,000 head of certified Kobe beef cattle in the world – and all are in Japan. According to Forbes, “The process is so strict that when the beef is sold, either in stores or restaurants, it must carry the 10-digit identification number so customers know what particular Tajima-gyu cow it came from.”
Kobe in American Markets
In 2010, the USDA banned the import of any and all Japanese beef, due to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. This includes fresh, frozen, whole, cut, boned or on the bone.
So what is the Kobe beef that your local steakhouse is currently selling?
Depends on the restaurant. Some restaurants simply call any higher-cut of steak “Kobe” and inflate the price. Other restaurants serve “American Kobe,” which comes from Japanese Wagyu cattle imported to America and crossbred with Angus cows, or 100% Wagyu cattle themselves.
What makes those cattle different? Diet, first off. The Tajimi cattle have a special diet (which does include sake and beer), plus regulation and bloodlines. There are 100% Wagyu, percentage Wagyu, purebred Wagyu (which does not mean 100% pure), etc. Also, these cattle are fed whatever each individual owner wants to feed them.
Regulation in the U.S.
Quite simply, there is none. The U.S. does not recognize the Japanese’s trademark on Kobe beef, so any Joe Blow is free to use “Kobe” on whatever beef he wants (or even pork! Chicken!). Some local cities/counties might have ordinances in place for false advertisement, but it is rarely enforced, simply because no one files a complaint.
So, next time you go out, skip the Kobe burger or hot dog and stick with an Angus burger. It’s more likely to be legit, and less likely to infringe upon someone’s copyright.
Sources and Other Reading Material
“American Kobe-style beef replaces the real thing,” MSNBC, published Dec. 29 2005
“Bogus beef: Miami restaurants say it’s Kobe, but it’s not,” Miami New Times, published Oct. 8 2009
“Forbes: No Real ‘Kobe’ Beef in U.S.,” Investor Times, published April 13, 2012
“Food’s Biggest Scam: The Great Kobe Beef Lie,” Forbes, published April 12, 2012
“Kobe And Wagyu Beef: Final Thoughts And Clarifications,” Forbes, published April 19, 2012
“Kobe Beef: Food’s Biggest Scam,” theKitchn, published April 27, 2012
“Fake Food: That’s Not Kobe Beef You’re Eating,” NPR, published April 22, 2012
“Kobe Beef,” Wikipedia, updated August 7, 2012