Food's Biggest Scam: The Great Kobe Beef Lie
Think you’ve tasted the famous Japanese Kobe beef?
Of course, there are a small number of you out there who have tried it – I did, in Tokyo, and it is delicious. If you ever go to Japan I heartily recommend you splurge, because while it is expensive, it is unique, and you cannot get it in the United States. Not as steaks, not as burgers, certainly not as the ubiquitous “Kobe sliders” at your trendy neighborhood “bistro.”
That’s right. You heard me. I did not misspeak. I am not confused like most of the American food media.
I will state this as clearly as possible:
You cannot buy Japanese Kobe beef in this country. Not in stores, not by mail, and certainly not in restaurants. No matter how much you have spent, how fancy a steakhouse you went to, or which of the many celebrity chefs who regularly feature “Kobe beef” on their menus you believed, you were duped. I’m really sorry to have to be the one telling you this, but no matter how much you would like to believe you have tasted it, if it wasn’t in Asia you almost certainly have never had Japan’s famous Kobe beef.
You may have had an imitation from the Midwest, Great Plains, South America or Australia, where they produce a lot of what I call “Faux-be” beef. You may have even had a Kobe imposter from Japan before 2010. It is now illegal to import (or even hand carry for personal consumption) any Japanese beef. Before 2010 you could import only boneless fresh Japanese beef, but none was real Kobe. Under Japanese law, Kobe beef can only came from Hyogo prefecture (of which Kobe is the capital city), where no slaughterhouses were approved for export by the USDA. According to its own trade group, the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association in Japan, where Kobe Beef is a registered trademark, Macao is the only place it is exported to – and only since last year. If you had real Kobe beef in this country in recent years, someone probably smuggled it in their luggage.
“How is this possible?” you ask, when you see the virtues of Kobe being touted on television food shows, by famous chefs, and on menus all over the country? A dozen burger joints in Las Vegas alone offer Kobe burgers. Google it and you will find dozens of online vendors happy to take your money and ship you very pricey steaks. Restaurant reviews in the New York Times have repeatedly praised the “Kobe beef” served at high-end Manhattan restaurants. Not an issue of any major food magazine goes by without reinforcing the great fat Kobe beef lie. So how could I possibly be right?
The answer is sadly simplistic: 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.
In contrast, when you order “Kobe beef” here, you usually can’t even tell what kind of cow it came from – or where. Or what makes it “Kobe.”
The bottom line is that the only reason there is beef called Kobe beef sold in this country is because our government lets vendors call a lot of things Kobe beef. But the reason consumers buy it is because the cattle industry in Kobe spent lifetimes building a reputation for excellence, a reputation that has essentially been stolen.
There are two different parts to the broad misuse of the Kobe name. Historically in the US, restaurants and distributors have generically termed virtually any beef from anywhere in Japan Kobe, and many high-end restaurants did once get beef from Japan, and put it on the menus as Kobe, though it was not true Kobe beef. But in the past two years there has been no Japanese beef here. So the term Kobe today has even less meaning, and the meat can come from many different countries and have nothing in common with actual Kobe beef except that it comes from cows. The argument often broached by the food industry that this non-Japanese Kobe is some sort of recreation of the real thing from the same breed of cows is also largely a myth.
If you still don’t believe me because you have been inundated with so much fake Kobe beef in this country, read about it in the USDA’s own words, about how as of early 2010 all beef from Japan including that “normally referred to as Kobe beef,” will “be refused entry,” “including in passenger luggage.” This is still the case, as you can see in the most recent Animal Product Manual, produced by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), dated March 1, 2012 which specifically states that beef from Japan, fresh or frozen, whole or cut, bone-in or boneless, will be “Refused Entry.”
It is impossible to say exactly what you are getting in your Faux-be slider, or $100 Faux-be strip, but one thing is certain – it is not Japanese Kobe beef. For the past two years, it has not been any kind of Japanese beef at all.