11:11am

Sun April 22, 2012
Food

Fake Food: That's Not Kobe Beef You're Eating

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 6:45 am

An increasing number of restaurants in the U.S. display signature dishes made with Kobe beef. From Kobe steak raviolis to Kobe beef burgers, you name it, Kobe beef seems to be popping up everywhere — except it's not Kobe beef.

Food writer Larry Olmsted of Forbes.com couldn't help but notice the trend and decided to bust everyone's bubble in a three-part expose of the so-called domestic Kobe beef industry.

What we've thought was Kobe beef was most likely U.S.-raised beef, Olmsted tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, not the expensive delicacy raised in Japan.

"You can guarantee that it was not real Kobe beef because real Kobe beef from Japan is not imported in the United States at all," he says.

Under Japanese law, real Kobe beef actually comes from a particular breed of cow known as Tajima.

"Most importantly," Olmsted says, "they have to be slaughtered in Hyogo prefecture where none of the slaughter houses are approved by the USDA for export," he tells Raz.

So, how is it possible that Kobe beef is advertised all across the U.S.? While Kobe cattlemen in Japan have both patent and trademarks on the different terminology for Kobe beef, U.S. law does not recognize or protect these trademarks.

"So, we can call pretty much anything we want Kobe," Olmsted says. "The Department of Agriculture cares that when you call something beef, it's beef, and that's about it."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

You could use that land to raise Kobe beef. It's a menu item that increasingly is popping up all over the country. And I have a couple of menus in front of me here in the studio from local restaurants in Washington, D.C. Here are a few choice items. We've got a ground Kobe beef and sirloin burger with smoked mozzarella. That is $10. Here's one from another menu. This is a Kobe beef burger topped with Tillamook and aged white cheddar, $16. Here we go. This is for Kobe steak ravioli with spinach and chestnut pasta, $34.

Food writer Larry Olmstead has noticed Kobe beef's growing popularity. But on his Forbes magazine blog recently, he revealed this: If you have ordered Kobe beef in a restaurant in the United States, you were lied to. You did not eat real Kobe beef. So what did you eat?

LARRY OLMSTEAD: It's really impossible to say, except you can guarantee that it was not real Kobe beef. Particularly, if you got a slide or a burger, you know you're in trouble because real Kobe beef does not make for good burgers. You're never going to see a Kobe beef burger on a menu in Japan. It's too fatty and too marble.

So the only way to make it into good burger is to mix it with a bunch of American cows and, you know, make it more like American beef.

RAZ: OK. So what is a Kobe beef? I mean, if it's not what I'm seeing on the menus in restaurants in the U.S., what is it?

OLMSTEAD: Well, it's a particular breed of cow under Japanese law, the Tajima breed, that has to have been born in Hyogo Prefecture, which Kobe is the capital of, raised there, fed a certain diet produced there. They're not, contrary to what a lot of people think, grass-fed beef. They eat some local grasses. They also eat hay and feed. And they have to be slaughtered in Hyogo Prefecture, where none of the slaughterhouses are approved by the USDA for export. So even when Japanese beef wasn't banned, as it is now, outright, Kobe beef wasn't coming here.

RAZ: OK. So I don't get it. How is it possible that this world-renowned beef that is so expensive - you say only 3,000 head of cattle, Kobe cattle, exist in the world - how is it possible that restaurants all over the United States advertise Kobe beef, Kobe beef burgers? I've seen Kobe beef hot dogs. How is that possible?

OLMSTEAD: Well, it's - the Kobe beef growers or cattlemen in Japan have both patents and trademarks on the different terminology Kobe beef, Kobe cattle, none of which are protected under U.S. law. So we can call pretty much anything we want Kobe. You know, really, as - the Department of Agriculture cares that when you call something beef, it's beef, and that's about it.

RAZ: Now, as a food writer, I'm assuming you've eaten Kobe beef.

OLMSTEAD: In Japan.

RAZ: In Japan. OK. So is Kobe beef, real Kobe beef, better than, like, a USDA prime rib eye that you can get at, you know, one of these great steakhouses in America?

OLMSTEAD: I personally don't think so, but that's very much a matter of taste. You know, it's like saying, is red wine better than white wine. Its thing is that it's buttery. It's really fatty, but it's so marbled. You know, most steaks we get, there's meat and there's fat. There's not that much marbling. But the fat is so spread throughout it that there's a little bit of fat in every bite. And as a result, it sort of melts on your tongue. It's very rich, it's very buttery. You know, it's a matter of taste. It is very good.

RAZ: That's Larry Olmstead. He's a blogger for forbes.com. He writes about travel and food. Larry, thanks.

OLMSTEAD: Thank you.

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RAZ: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.