For years, restaurants across the United States have been slapping “Kobe beef” and “Wagyu beef” on their menus as a convenient way to sell burgers at extraordinary prices — just like charging $20 for mac and cheese can be justified by adding some black truffles or truffle oil.
While most people know these labels are associated with high-quality meat, few can actually define them — and even fewer are aware that all beef labeled “Kobe” and “Wagyu” served in the U.S. before November 2012 wasn’t what it claimed to be.
“Wagyu” literally means “Japanese cattle.” Wagyu beef comes from the four main breeds of cattle in Japan: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Poll and Japanese Shorthorn, as well as crossbreeds that result from interbreeding among those four breeds. It’s not true Wagyu beef unless it came from one of the breeds and was both born and bred in Japan.
According to Forbes writer Larry Olmsted, who wrote a comprehensive four-part series on Kobe and Wagyu beef, some farmers have transported purebred Wagyu cattle to the United States, but few have actually maintained the bloodlines in 100% pure forms, with documentation to prove it. “Even the term ‘purebred Wagyu,’ used by the American Wagyu Association, does not refer to a wholly pure animal,” Olmsted wrote. “Their term for that is 100% Wagyu. However, much of what is sold as Wagyu here is what the AWA calls ‘percentage Wagyu,’ meaning it is part Japanese breed after being crossed with other types of cattle.”
Kobe beef comes from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle, one of the four breeds of Wagyu cattle. But bloodline isn’t the only criteria. The terms “Kobe Beef,” “Kobe Meat,” “Kobe-gyu,” “Tajima-gyu” and “Tajima Beef” are all registered trademarks in Japan, and the meat from Tajima-gyu cows must meet extremely strict standards to obtain certification for such labels.
In addition to being of pure Tajima breed raised in Hyogo prefecture, the cattle must be slaughtered at specific slaughterhouses, have a BMS (marbling index) of No. 6 or higher (on a scale of 12), have a gross carcass weight of 470 kilograms or less and meet a yield score — a grade based on the amount of percentage of edible cuts that can be gained from a single head of cattle — of A or B (it ranges from A to C). The cattle are fed only the best feed — rice straw, maize, barley and other cereals — and drink only fresh, clean water.
A mere 3,000 head of certified beef cattle exist, and they’re all in Japan, according to the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association. The meat is prized for its flavor, tenderness and “shimofuri” fat marbling, which means it has a high degree of fat marbling that melts at low temperatures, giving the beef the “melt-in-your-mouth” effect.
Until November of last year, Wagyu beef — including Kobe beef — had never been exported to the United States. In fact, it had never even been exported outside of Asia.
Due to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the USDA had banned Japanese beef from entering the country, and the restrictions weren’t lifted until last fall when the USDA began allowing the limited importation of whole cuts of boneless beef. Since the Japanese patents and trademarks aren’t recognized in the United States, U.S. producers could call any of their meat products “Kobe” and get away with it.
So, unfortunately, that $35 Kobe burger you ate last spring wasn’t the real deal. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t high-quality beef — it may have been — but if it didn’t come from Tajima cattle in Japan, it wasn’t Kobe beef. Similarly, you can find plenty of great-tasting sparkling wines, but if they didn’t come from Champagne, France, they’re not Champagne.