I’m not a food purist. If people want to take a fine cut of Kobe beef and destroy it by grinding it up and making a hamburger of it, that’s up to them. But it’s a terrible waste of precious food. So imagine my relief to be reassured that all those Kobe beef burgers are actually made of plain old USDA beef, no matter how much they cost.
First off, for several years now, the USDA has forbidden the import of any Japanese beef, Kobe or otherwise. (Funny all the complaints about unfair trade when I regularly see US beef in Japanese supermarkets.)
“But wait,” you say, “can’t “Kobe” beef be made in the USA, too?”
No, and for a couple reasons.
For one, there are no real standards regarding the labeling of Kobe beef outside Japan. Anybody could call their beef Kobe, and given the price factor, many do. In Japan, Kobe beef must be born, raised and slaughtered in Hyogo prefecture using very specific methods. There are also strict requirements concerning weight, age and fat. It’s not just a myth that the cows are fed beer and given massages (to reduce stress).
What is called Kobe in the US, is at best beef cattle that were bred from original Wagyu stock. (Wagyu literally means “Japanese beef.”)
A recent Forbes article explains:
Despite the fact that Kobe Beef, as well as Kobe Meat and Kobe Cattle, are patented trademarks in Japan, these trademarks are neither recognized nor protected by U.S. law. As far as regulators here are concerned, Kobe beef, unlike say Florida Orange Juice, means almost nothing (the “beef” part should still come from cows). Like the recent surge in the use of the unregulated label term “natural,” it is an adjective used mainly to confuse consumers and profit from that confusion.
This matters because the reason food lovers and expense account diners want Kobe beef, and are willing to pay a huge premium for it, is because of the real Kobe’s longstanding reputation for excellence. The con the US food industry is running is leading you to believe that what you are paying huge dollars for – like the $40 NYC “Kobe” burger – is somehow linked to this heritage of excellence. It’s not.
All the myths about cows getting massages and drinking beer while listening to classical music are just that, myths, but nonetheless real Kobe beef is produced under some of the world’s strictest legal food standards, whereas “domestic Kobe” beef production, along with that in Australia and South America, is as regulated as the Wild West. In Japan, to be Kobe requires a pure lineage of Tajima-gyu breed cattle (not any old Japanese breed crossbred with American cattle as is the norm here). The animal must also have been born in Hyogo prefecture and thus raised on the local grasses and water and terroir its entire life. It must be a bull or virgin cow, and it takes considerably longer to raise a Tajima-gyu for consumption than most other breeds, adding to the cost. It must be processed in a Hyogo slaughterhouse – none of which export to the US – and then pass a strict government grading exam. There are only 3000 head of certified Kobe Beef cattle in the world, and none are outside Japan. 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.
So, in the US, the American beef producers have taken a treasured process and trademarked term to use as an easy way to empty the pockets of gullible consumers – a tradition already well established by many ridiculously expensive, yet mediocre “Japanese restaurants.” (Often run by Korean or Chinese owners, or by untrained Japanese themselves.)
Thankfully, there are many kinds of beef in Japan with pedigrees similar to, or even better than Kobe beef – though such judgements are a matter of personal preference and cooking style. Matsusaka beef is what most Japanese mention when asked, though Saga beef and Yonezawa beef are also widely appreciated. Kobe is a port town, and a prominent city, so it was easy for word of Kobe beef to spread. As soon as most people finish reading this article, they will have already forgotten how to say Matsusaka.
While the producers of real Kobe beef can’t be happy that their name has been stolen and their reputation is slowly being degraded by Kobe burgers and other such culinary monstrosities, maybe they can get the USDA to relent and allow free trade. (Hah!)
If a friend smuggles real Kobe beef into the USA, please cook it properly.