“High prices don’t guarantee that you are getting Kobe beef but low prices virtually guarantee that you’re not.” – journalist Larry Olmstead
If you’ve ever eaten a Kobe burger or a Kobe slider, it’s time to ask for your money back. And customers at restaurants like Katsuya, Sushi Roku, BOA steakhouse and even Barney’s Beanery are doing just that. This year there have already been four class action lawsuits targeting prominent restaurant groups who allegedly served fraudulent Kobe beef. Attorney Kevin Shenkman served as class counsel for suits against McCormick and Schmick’s, Barney’s Beanery, Innovative Dining Group and most recently SBE group. He explains, “These businesses are passing off their beef is being Kobe beef when it is anything but Kobe beef and they’re charging premium prices to consumers who are paying those prices because they think that it is in fact Kobe beef and it’s not.”
To understand why customers are demanding a refund you have to back up and understand just what Kobe beef is. On a trip to Tokyo earlier this year I was awestruck by both the unique marbling and high prices that real Kobe beef demands. I paid a visit to Thomas Angerer, Executive Chef at the Park Hyatt’s New York Grill. The hotel is famous for two things: the film Lost in Translation and high end beef. I asked Chef Angerer to explain what Kobe is:
“Kobe is the city in Hyogo prefecture where certified Kobe beef has to be from purebred tajima cattle which is born and raised in Hyogo and then slaughtered in Kobe. Only after inspection of the meat and certain criteria are fulfilled of the marbling then only is it going to be called Kobe.”
The most common comparison to Kobe is Champagne; there are strict rules about where the product is grown and how it is cultivated. Just as a sparkling wine from California can’t be called Champagne, a Japanese cow raised in Colorado cannot qualify as Kobe. Chef Angerer told me that only 0.6 percent of all Japanese cattle are considered Kobe and of that tiny fraction, an even smaller amount is exported to the US.
Just How Little Kobe is Exported to the US?
“Less than 300 lbs per month,” says Larry Olmstead, a journalist who has been covering Kobe fraud for several years. In an article for Forbes Magazine he described it as food’s biggest scam. “When you think about all the restaurants in this country…that’s 10 lbs a day on average, and there were months when no Kobe at all was imported to this country, so it’s still basically a trace amount.” Olmstead goes on to explain that even in Japan the average person has never tasted Kobe beef. “It’s not like Maine with lobster – it’s not like people are just eating it all the time, it’s still $200/lb in Japan.”
Just to put that $200/pound in perspective, the most expensive beef you can buy at Whole Foods in LA is the dry aged rib eye for $25/pound. The astronomical prices that Kobe demands are due to the extreme quality control. “The beef doesn’t just have to come from Kobe,” says Olmstead. “It still also has to grade out to the highest level so some of the cows raised on the farms aren’t sold as Kobe beef just because they don’t have the right marbling.”
Stories of cattle being fed Sapporo beer and breeders dolling out cow-massages turn out to be true, but Chef Angerer says it’s not the beer that provides the unique marbling and flavor. It’s the relaxed lifestyle.
“The reason they started giving them beer is because Japan is very hot and humid during the summer months and the beef didn’t eat because they were too hot and didn’t have an appetite. So they started giving them beer to increase the appetite and they started playing music to have a ritual to get them feeding to a certain time and apparently it relaxed them as well.”
Does Kobe Beef Look and Taste Different than American Beef?
All this coddling results in a beef that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the US. The fat in Kobe beef appears like lace. Instead of the streaked marbling you see in American steaks, Kobe looks as though it has been splatter painted, literally speckled with an even layer of white fat. While visiting a slaughterhouse in Kobe, Larry Olmstead saw first hand how the meat differs from American beef. “One of the inspectors cut a piece of fat off the exterior of the side of beef and put it on his hand where it melted almost like a chip of ice,” he told me. “It literally melts in your mouth.”
All this is to say that you’re not going to get this melt in your mouth quality beef in a slider at your local chain restaurant. Olmstead says that even a fifty dollar Kobe burger wouldn’t make economic sense, which is why attorney Kevin Shenkman is trying to stop prominent restaurant groups from abusing the word Kobe. He says that restaurants and menus need to be forthright with where this beef is coming from.
With the exception of a Marriott near Chicago, the restaurants that have come under fire have all stopped describing their beef as Kobe. Plus, they are offering gift certificates to anyone who ate so-called kobe products in their restaurants.
To ensure that you don’t get scammed, Larry Olmstead has this advice:
“While you can get Kobe beef in the US it’s still so cumbersome and expensive and so sort of fraught with the risk of being ripped off, that I’d save it for a trip to Japan.”