Witness the Great Kobe Beef Deception

Categories: Wake Up Call

It would appear that the food industry has a problem being honest with consumers when it comes to labeling. Fish are mislabeled, lean finely textured beef is only grudgingly being labeled, and so on.

But most of that pales in comparison to the financial ride consumers are taking on Kobe beef. Larry Olmsted, a Forbes contributor, spent most of last week detailing exactly why American produced "Kobe" beef is as deceptive or worse than American produced "Champagne." "Food's Biggest Scam: The Great Kobe Beef Lie" touches on a great number of issues. Olmsted starts by point out what might be a bit of a shocking revelation for most of us: "You cannot buy Japanese Kobe beef in this country." It turns out Japan has banned the exportation of Kobe beef since 2010, going so far as to even ban the hand-carrying of beef for personal consumption. It's not even clear if it was possible to import Kobe beef prior to 2010, at least not in quantities necessary to put Kobe beef in increasing numbers of supermarket chains and restaurants around the country.

So if Kobe beef is supposed to come from Kobe, Japan... What on Earth are they serving us?

It turns out that they're serving us "American Style Kobe Beef" or American Wagyu. The problem Olmsted has with that is two fold. First, Wagyu and Kobe beef are often used interchangeably and Kobe is a subset Wagyu in the same way that a Texas Longhorn is a subset of American cows.

The second problem he has is that "American Style Wagyu/Kobe" actually translates to, "Japanese cows of varying types, crossbred with American cows so they'll be less marbled (the selling point of Kobe) and therefore more palatable to American diners." Because of that discrepancy Olmsted questions whether or not we should be paying as much as we do for a product that could probably use a more accurate label.

Let's look at Modern Steak as an example. On Modern Steak's dinner menu you can see that they've tucked their "Kobe" beef burgers and steak under the header of "American Wagyu." That seems like a reasonable approximation of the truth because you're eating a crossbred Japanese-American cow. But on their lunch menu, Kobe burgers and hot dogs are listed without any indicator of whether that's actual Kobe or just Faux-be. Their beef supplier, Salt River Farms, explains that their "Wagyu Beef" is actually a crossbreed between a Black Angus and a "Japanese Wagyu" (which would translate to Japanese Japanese Cattle). While it's good that they explain this, let's return to Texas Longhorn example from earlier.

If a Japanese farmer decided to import high quality American cattle and breed them with her own Black Tajima-ushi (the specific and only breed that is actually Kobe beef), would it be right for her to sell the resulting product as "Super Premium Japanese-style American Texas Longhorn Beef"? Olmsted seems to argue that the correct answer is no and that being so deceptive besmirches the reputation of Texas Longhorn ranchers and confuses the hell out of consumers.

It is important to note that Olmsted isn't calling out "American Style Wagyu/Kobe Beef" as being bad, in fact he admits that they produce some fine cuts of cow. What he, and perhaps many consumers, is upset about is that beef producers are trying to piggyback off the fame of a Japanese product's name to up sell consumers on what is fundamentally a domestic product. Indeed, a product we as Americans should probably be proud to have created. Modern Steak cooks a fine steak but is it really worth nearly $300 a pound if it isn't actually being imported?

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Modern Steak - CLOSED

7014 E. Camleback Road, Scottsdale, AZ

Category: Restaurant

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4 comments
Dominic Armato
Dominic Armato

"It is important to note that Olmsted isn't calling out "American Style Wagyu/Kobe Beef" as being bad, in fact he admits that they produce some fine cuts of cow. What he, and perhaps many consumers, is upset about is that beef producers are trying piggyback off the fame of a Japanese product's name to up sell consumers on what is fundamentally a domestic product."

It isn't just a matter of terminology.  Snake River Farms turns out a really nice steak, yeah.  But it doesn't even remotely resemble premium Japanese beef.  Nothing currently produced in the States does.

Photos here: http://phxfoodnerds.com/viewto...

Ando Muneno
Ando Muneno

Actually, I did find out that there's at least one rancher in Colorado that is raising purebred "wagyu" (whatever breed that actually happens to be) 
http://www.denverpost.com/busi...

 But yeah, that's one guy with 300 head of cattle that JUST brought a product to market this year. And I will concede that we have no idea how the beef he's making stacks up against Japanese beef on their special marbling scale. 

That said I don't know enough about Kobe personally (I only had it once or twice when I was stationed in Japan) to be able to comment on how far off a Salt River Farms ribeye cap is from whatever hunk of premium cow I had.

Dominic Armato
Dominic Armato

From what I understand, while Prescott is building a purebred herd (though, as you point out, they don't even say what breed that is -- which makes me more than a little suspicious), they're crossbreeding them with domestic cattle before bringing them to market.

What's pictured on their website, if it's truly representative of their product, looks like it's starting to get there, though.

Ando Muneno
Ando Muneno

Bah, yeah that's what it sounds like. 

But you're right, if the picture is legit than they're much closer to Kobe-style than anything I've seen at AJ's. 

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