A few months ago, recognizing fake Kobe beef on restaurant menus was easy because it was all fake, despite claims by many restaurants of serving real Japanese Kobe beef.
That’s because under Japanese law, Kobe beef can only come from Hyogo prefecture — of which Kobe is the capital city — where no slaughterhouses were approved for export by the USDA.
Kobe is a place, like Champagne or Burgundy. Wagyu refers to several Japanese breeds, whereas Kobe beef can only come from one particular breed.
Kobe beef refers to beef from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, raised according to strict tradition in Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan, located in the Kansai region on Honshū island. The capital is Kobe.
In others words, all Kobe beef is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe beef. Both are well marbled beef but Wagyu is less marbled and is priced accordingly. There are other “special” beefs in Japan in addition to Kobe.
So-called Kobe beef sold in the US is produced by American farmers who imported a few dozen Wagyu cattle and then cross-bred them with domestic Angus.
Moreover, the US does not recognize Japan’s trademarks and so the term Kobe beef has almost no legal standing in the US; thus, retailers and restaurants can use the term with impunity.
If you’ve eaten real Kobe beef in the US in recent years, it’s only because someone smuggled it into the United States. The last year Japanese beef was legally purchased in the US was 2009.
According to the UDSA, as of early 2010 all beef from Japan including that normally referred to as Kobe beef, was refused entry into the US, including in passenger luggage.
However, as Larry Olmsted points out, all that has now changed.
In August, the USDA relaxed its rules and allowed the limited importation of some Japanese beef.
The ban was initially implemented because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease among Japanese cattle, but the USDA now considers the current risk for Japan to be low, and whole cuts of boneless beef can be imported.
Other geographically designated Wagyu beef from Japan — often considered as good or even better than that from Kobe — will now also be allowed.
Olmsted claims that even though the USDA has relaxed the foot and mouth ban, because many other USDA rules still apply, such as approved slaughterhouses and inspections, Japanese beef won’t be supplied in your supermarket anytime soon.
The small amount that is being imported today is going almost exclusively to high-end steakhouses who will charge extravagantly for it.
“The Old Homestead in New York was one of the first to jump on the legal Kobe bandwagon, and numerous news outlets have reported their price of $350 for a steak.”
Olmsted notes that because it is now theoretically possible to buy real Kobe beef it will be much harder for consumers to know if what they are paying hundreds of dollars for is the real thing or not.
It is a classic case of buyer beware, says Olmsted, who advises that if in doubt, before dropping hundreds of dollars on a steak, ask to see documentation such as the example pictured here from The Red Streakhouse.