Kobe Beef in the U.S. Is Basically a Huge Sham

Kobe Beef in the U.S. Is Basically a Huge Sham photo

Kobe beef is the world’s most famous red meat, but also misunderstood, extremely rare, and cloaked in mystery. Kobe is an actual place, and its beef is one regional style of Japanese Wagyu (the cattle breed), as Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is to all American cabernet. Japanese Wagyu, including Kobe, is more widely available in this country than ever before, which is good news for food lovers. The bad news? It is still scarce, and only a sliver of the many restaurants claiming to serve it offer the real thing. Instead, many serve what’s known in the trade as “wangus,” a hybrid of domestically raised Wagyu breeds and common Angus and call it Kobe. Some don’t even bother using any Wagyu breed at all.

An Inside Edition report a few months ago publicly shamed New York establishments Old Homestead Steakhouse and Le Bernardin for having Kobe on their menus that wasn’t Kobe (Le Bernardin, which did actually use another high quality real Japanese regional Wagyu, apologized and quickly changed their menu wording). After upscale brands including McCormick & Schmick’s settled class action lawsuits for erroneously claiming to serve high-priced Kobe beef, many menus switched to the vaguer “Wagyu.” Despite the outcry, consumers still don’t often know the difference between the terms.

Meaning “Japanese cow,” Wagyu traditionally refers to four historically Japanese breeds: black (the most prevalent, about 90%), brown (aka red), polled (hornless), and shorthorn. Genetics set pure Wagyu apart from all other beef with vastly superior marbling and fat quality. At its best, fat is evenly dispersed and does not appear in bands or clumps, but as either tiny pinhead dots or a spider web of ultra-thin veins throughout the entire muscle. While most raw steaks are red and white, Wagyu is uniformly pink, a highly integrated blend of meat and fat. It’s also unusually high in healthier unsaturated fatty acids—especially oleic acid, which is responsible for flavor. These monounsaturated fats have a lower melting point, below human body temperature, so they literally melt in your mouth. Instantly recognizable, Japanese Wagyu looks and tastes markedly different from almost all other beef.

Japan has among the world’s strictest meat grading rules, and while each carcass is graded on four characteristics, most important is “Beef Marbling Standard,” from 1-12. USDA Prime, our highest marbling grade, equates to about 4. Most domestic Wagyu or hybrids would score 6-9, while Kobe usually ranks 10 or higher. The four factors are converted into a final score from 1-5, and assigned a letter based on yield, so the highest possible score is A5, though A4 is still excellent.

Most cattle have been repeatedly crossbred to grow bigger, faster, hardier, or fattier. Our most popular beef breed, “Angus,” is so diluted that the USDA definition does not require even one drop of genetics from its namesake forerunner, Scotland’s prized Aberdeen Angus, “The Butcher’s Breed.” Conversely, Japanese Wagyu ranchers obsess about pure bloodlines to preserve the coveted traits. Legal rules for Kobe beef, raised only in Hyogo prefecture, require the cattle to be 100% pure Tajima, a strain of black Wagyu, born within the prefecture—and whose every known ancestor was as well, sometimes going back centuries.

Kobe Beef
Kobe is the most acclaimed of several prominent regional Wagyu, though as with the Napa cabernet comparison, the best from other regions are just as delicious (top regional Wagyu include Matsuzaka, Omi, Sendai, Mishima, Hokkaido, and Miyazaki). Stories of cattle reared on classical music, beer, and massages, while allowed, are largely myths. But, the Hyogo government keeps the 12 most ideal bulls in a special facility, using their semen to inseminate all cows. Every ounce of Kobe beef eaten worldwide was fathered by one of these dozen perfect marbling specimens. However, not much is eaten worldwide. After slaughter and grading, only half the Tajima cattle qualify as Kobe, 3-4,000 head per year, less than one midsize U.S. cattle ranch. Today, enough reaches the U.S. to satisfy the average beef consumption of just 77 Americans. It’s so scarce that Kobe’s marketing board licenses individual restaurants, and real Kobe beef is available at just eight restaurants in the entire country (see the list), while none, ever, is sold at retail.

Wagyu is very rich, tender, and fatty, often compared to foie gras or butter. The first bite is amazing, and as fat coats your tongue and suppresses taste, each subsequent bite is a little less so. For this reason, portions in Japan are very small, 3-4 ounces as an entree, thin slices seared rare, served off the bone. You never get a 32-ounce Wagyu T-bone. Real Wagyu/Kobe is too fatty (and much too pricey) for burger grinds, so Wagyu burgers are almost surely not the real thing—they may blend in some domestic Wagyu or hybrid wangus, but often simply slap the name on normal beef (this is legal for restaurants).

Wagyu elsewhere is often crossbred to mirror local tastes. Every crossbred generation loses half of the special marbling and fat characteristics of true Wagyu. Australia, a major producer and exporter, typically crosses Wagyu with traditional dairy breeds such as Holstein. In the U.S., Wagyu is most often crossed with Angus, and USDA regulations require only 46.9% Wagyu genetics for beef sold at retail. Exempt from these labelling requirements, restaurants can call any beef Wagyu, and often do.

Domestic or Australian Wagyu and Wagyu hybrids can be excellent meat, often superior to good conventional beef, and is not something to be afraid of. But it will almost certainly not give you the uniquely succulent experience of Japanese beef. If you are not at one of the eight certified restaurants, simply assume any Kobe beef claim is a lie, especially “Kobe” burgers and hot dogs. More menus are listing domestic or American Kobe: Avoid this, it’s a semantic impossibility on par with domestic Scotch Whisky.

Wagyu is a murkier issue. Places that bother to source the real thing almost always highlight it, so look for “from Japan” and the name of a specific place such as Miyazaki, one of the more available regional Wagyu. Japanese beef can only be legally imported in boneless cuts—run away from any porterhouse or rib steak posing as imported Wagyu. The real thing is always boneless, usually strip, ribeye or filet. While high price is not a guarantee of quality, low price is a big red flag: Always expensive, Japanese Wagyu typically starts at $20 an ounce and can easily run twice that, so even a small serving for under $60-$80 is likely an impostor. If still in doubt, ask what region it’s from and where the restaurant got it, as there are very few suppliers. If the waiter or chef hesitates or doesn’t know precisely, that’s a bad sign, as real Wagyu takes a lot of effort to procure. Finally, many pundits suggest asking for official paperwork, but while all Japanese beef does come with impressive certificates boasting seals and nose prints, these can be old, faked, and even when accurate, are virtually impossible to make sense of.


Larry Olmsted is the author of Real Food, Fake Food (Algonquin $28)

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