Yesterday in this column I started to explain the biggest fraud in the American culinary scene: that there is no authentic Japanese Kobe beef sold in this country, anyplace. Not one slice of it. What is heavily marketed as Kobe beef on menus, in stores, and by mail order is at best an imitation of Japanese beef, and at worst has no relationship whatsoever to the genuine article.
Mine is a rather straightforward proposition – U.S. law bans the import of all Japanese beef. It’s hard to argue with that. But imitation Japanese beef is a much murkier issue.
2014 UPDATE: Changes have occurred regarding the status of Kobe beef in the United States. For the most current information, please read the 2014 piece, The New Truth About Kobe Beef, which has details that supersede information contain herein.
What about “Domestic Kobe” or Wagyu? Savvy eaters may have noticed that in recent years some menus and meat packaging have switched to these terms. I’ve also seen “American-style Kobe” and “American Wagyu” (I’ve even seen Kobe pork, Kobe bacon and Kobe pigs-in-a-blanket!). I’m not sure if these are attempts to be slightly less dishonest, but if so, they fall far short, since none of these terms mean anything to the buyer.
Restaurants in Dubai are full of live Maine lobsters, flown halfway around the world on ice at great expense to offer diners one of the best expressions of the crustacean. Customers happily pay over $100 to try the famous Maine lobster. But what if those lobsters were a different species, from the Persian Gulf, labeled “domestic Maine lobsters?” Or “UAE Maine lobsters?” That would be a total rip-off. Fortunately the restaurateurs in Dubai are not nearly as unscrupulous as those here in the States, where this kind of high-priced bait and switch is pulled off thousands of times each day with domestic Kobe – excuse me – Faux-be beef.
Kobe is the capital of Hyogo prefecture, where all authentic Kobe beef comes from. Hyogo has a climate, tradition and environment suited to raising cows with really delicious beef, thanks to an extraordinary level of fat marbling. However, it is a crappy place to grow oranges. So imagine you are an orange farmer in Kobe and understandably, no one wants to pay a premium for your juice. You can try harder, do your job better, and build a positive name for your product, or you can find a place where they have already spent generations perfecting their craft and building a reputation for their brand and simply steal it. As long as your own country’s laws don’t care, this is a quick and easy path to ripping off consumers. “Domestic Kobe beef” is the U.S. equivalent of the Kobe farmer bottling and selling “domestic Florida Orange juice” to con consumers into paying a premium for a product unrelated to its namesake reputation.
Or, he can do what some U.S. ranchers have done, and take it a step further. He can import seeds from Florida oranges, discover that the fruit does not so well in his climate, and cross it with some local fruit so it survives better in an environment that was never suited for it and still position it as essentially Florida Orange juice. He can then decide that the Japanese palate really doesn’t care for Florida orange juice anyway, because it is too “orangey,” and position his experiment as some sort of improvement on the original.
“Domestic Kobe” beef means just as much as slapping the word “domestic” in front of any other product made better somewhere else: would you drink domestic Scotch whisky? I wouldn’t. Would you spend $50,000 on a domestic Swiss watch? Would you buy domestic Champagne (well, actually Americans do, and in large quantities, often unknowingly, for the very same reason – there is no law here against bogus labeling).
Several readers wrote in yesterday to compare the misuse of Kobe to that of Champagne, but in my opinion, the Kobe issue is worse. Just about every informed consumer knows that Champagne is a place in France famous for producing great sparkling wines, and much of the time when you buy champagne, you are getting something from Champagne. Kobe is exactly the same scenario, a place known for producing excellent beef, except none of the time you buy Kobe beef are you getting something from Kobe. Also, famous chefs and editors at major food magazines don’t routinely try to fleece the American public into buying bogus champagne.
How about the more innocuous term Wagyu (often domestic Wagyu or Australian Wagyu)? It is frequently bandied about as a synonym or “translation” of Kobe. See it on a menu or in a store and ask about it and you will often be told it is the breed of cattle the famous Japanese Kobe beef comes from. Many websites selling “Wagyu” say exactly this.
Another big lie. Actually, several more big lies.
Real Kobe beef is from a very specific breed of cow – and surprise, it is not Wagyu. In fact, Wagyu is not even a breed. Not that it matters much here, but actual Kobe beef comes from the Tajima-gyu breed – and by law, only from that breed. Wagyu, on the other hand, means “Japanese Cattle” and refers to the entirety of the nation’s breeds. Of course, Japan has many Western and European cattle breeds – if I ship a cow that lives down the road from me in Vermont to Tokyo and it spends more than half its life there, it becomes Japanese cattle – but never Kobe. Some argue, with a bit of merit that Wagyu refers only to a narrower subset of historically Japanese breeds. Even if this is true it doesn’t change the fact that they are breeds not allowed in Kobe beef. So when I see the term Wagyu on a menu here I know exactly what it means: beef of largely unknown origin that is almost certainly overpriced – and not from Japan.
I know the folks at the American Wagyu Association are not going to be happy that you are learning this, but then if they actually think theirs is better than other types of beef, they should have come up with a new name for it, like “Great Great American Beef,” and let it swim or sink in the free market based on its quality. This is how most products are launched. It took Toyota and Honda a long time to build a quality reputation that matched that of American cars – they didn’t get there through the shortcut of calling themselves “Domestic American Automobiles.”
This is far from a crazy concept. Consider Cargill, one of the world’s largest and most successful food producers. Cargill has taken the correct tact and does not have a brand of alleged Wagyu or Kobe beef with a modifier. Instead they have created several of their own registered meat brands at various price points, including Angus Pride and Sterling Silver. The latter is one of their premium products, sourced from the top 12% of USDA graded beef and aged for at least 21 days. It is its own brand name – if you like Sterling Silver beef, you should buy it. If you don’t, never buy it again. That is how capitalism works. I haven’t tried it, so I can’t say, but I already like it simply because it does not pretend to be something it is not.
Here’s another alternative. Call these products what they are: Japanese-style beef. No false claim that it is from Japan, no false claim it is from the same breed as Kobe, no false claim that it is from a breed that doesn’t even exist. The big box store by me sells “Italian-style meatballs,” and I know what I am getting – something you would never get in Italy.
The website of the AWA clearly says the term Wagyu includes everything from Angus to Holstein cows, but proposes that the selective breeding of “American Wagyu” – it pains me just to type those words – began with the importation of Tottori Black and Kumamoto Red bulls. Now these actually happen to be two very high quality breeds that in some cases produce beef that in Japan is considered superior to Kobe. But even if all producers were honest and stuck to these bloodlines, American Kobe would be questionable since the red breed is specifically banned in the production of real Kobe beef. But these bloodlines are not pure, because they have intentionally been crossbred with our cows to produce something that often has only a minority of Japanese breed heredity – yet they still call the result Wagyu. There are, to be sure, breeders who imported traditional Japanese beef cows before the ban and have continued to breed them in a 100% pure manner, and have documented these unadulterated bloodlines, and offer something that is as close to pure Wagyu as you will find here, but they are in the minority among those many claiming to sell Wagyu. Unfortunately for the few purists, with weak labelling laws working in favor of those who cross breed and dilute the authenticity of the cows, they are painted with the broad brush of consumer misinformation the industry embraces.
A quick, boring technical detour (feel free to skip this paragraph): The USDA has a typically bureaucratic definition for the “Wagyu” bloodline criteria: “U.S. Prime steer and heifer beef carcasses which: (a) are derived from cattle that meet the genotypic requirements of the USDA Specification for Characteristics of Cattle Eligible for Approved Beef Programs Claiming Wagyu Influence.” To me the key words are “Wagyu influence,” which reminds me of labels reading “contains __% real fruit juice.” These “genotypic requirements” in turn “must be traceable to one registered parent (Fullblood or Purebred), two registered percentage or recorded parents, two registered grandparents (Fullblood or Purebred), or one registered Terminal Cross sire.” The gist of it seems to be that in order to be labeled Wagyu under USDA rules – rules that apparently apply only to specific brands and not to all domestic or imported “Wagyu,” – the meat in question can come from the breeding of a cow whose grandparents were both 94% “Wagyu,” even though there is no such breed. Giving everyone involved the benefit of the doubt and assuming they were starting with an actual quality Japanese breed, after crossing both grandparents with American cattle, then doing it again with the parents, you are talking about selling Wagyu from a cow that is potentially less than half “Wagyu.” To me, that’s like selling orange juice that is less than 47% oranges. Except you go to jail for the juice scam.
Just to be clear, I am not saying that some of what is labeled Domestic Kobe or Wagyu is not good or even great. In fact, I believe it is entirely possible to breed a better beef than real Kobe. But it is impossible to know this if it is labeled nonsensically and with no consistency. If these mixes are better cattle resulting in better meat, they should simply market them accordingly and charge a premium for “Fred’s Special Angus/Kumamoto Mix,” or give it a catchier name, instead of claiming it is something it is clearly not.
I also visited the website of Kobe Beef America. Click on “Why American Kobe beef?” and you can see for yourself their admittance that what they are marketing is distinctly different from what they themselves call “true Japanese Kobe beef.” Why? Here’s the kicker: the taste of the “American Kobe beef” has been created to appeal to the American palate – because the real thing is too rich for us! Of course, if you pay over $100 for a steak in a fancy restaurant, you might expect it to be rich. By this logic, we should all start eating domestic Swiss chocolate and domestic Russian caviar for our own good, because the real versions are too rich.
The irony in all of this is that we actually produce excellent beef here in the United States, and should be very proud of it. Many consumers, including the most sophisticated palates, prefer its taste to that of Kobe. Go to The Palm or Del Frisco and have a dry-aged, USDA Prime, bone-in ribeye and you may wonder why anyone would bother to make counterfeit foreign beef at all. Need more irony? In Japan, Kobe isn’t even considered the best beef, it just got the best buzz over here. If the Kobe farmers had not done such a good job building their reputation it would not have been stolen. Likewise, if our celebrity chefs knew more about quality meat, they might be foisting “domestic” Matsuzaka Sirloin on their unsuspecting customers instead of Faux-be and charging $200 instead of $100.
I recently ate at a restaurant that featured a chicken I had never heard of on its menu. When I asked, the owner told me, “It’s a very rare breed in France, rarer than the famed Bresse. It’s like the Kobe beef of chicken.” So it’s from France, I inquired? “No, California, near LA.”
This typifies much of what is wrong with our food production and labeling laws. Despite the facts, you will be able to walk into many restaurants tomorrow, question the menu, and be absolutely assured that theirs is real Japanese Kobe beef. It is not.
In Part 3, I explain why the real villain in the Kobe beef scam is the same villain behind many other fake high-end food products – the U.S. government.
I had to add Part 4: Final Clarifications because of so many reader questions.
Follow Me on Twitter Here