Is Kobe Beef A Big Scam?

One of Japan’s biggest culinary exports is Kobe beef, a high-end meat from purebred cows. Its quality is the stuff of legend. People say that the cows are massaged, played classical music, fed booze, and pampered in every way a cow possibly could be.

Kobe beef has taken off outside of Japan in recent years. You can now find Kobe beef in restaurants all over the US, everything from Kobe beef steaks to Kobe beef sliders.

At least, that’s the misconception.

A Forbes exposé recently blew the lid off what it calls “food’s biggest scam.” The author says that if you’ve eaten Kobe beef outside of Japan, chances are you’ve been lied to and ripped off.

Is this really the case? How could Kobe beef be such blatant fraud?

What Is Kobe Beef?

In Japan, Kobe beef is a very tightly controlled and regulated copyright. Only beef that meets a certain set of very strict standards can be labelled as Kobe beef.

Kobe beef only comes from the Hyogo prefecture, and is named after Hyogo’s capital city, Kobe. While the cows from which Kobe beef comes from aren’t actually given the royal treatment of massages and watery Japanese beers, they’re still very particular about their cows.

Kobe beefThe beef comes from cows of a very specific breed and distinct lineage. You can trace back the family of a Kobe beef cow for generations and generations. You’ll even be able to tell exactly which cow your meat came from; it’s all given Portlandia levels of care and attention.

Most importantly, the real, genuine article is served basically only in Japan. Since Kobe beef is so tightly regulated, it’s generally not allowed to be exported anywhere outside of Japan. (The only exception is Macau.)

In fact, since 2010 there haven’t been any beef exported from Japan to the U.S.. That raises the question: if Kobe beef can’t be exported out of Japan, then how are there so many Kobe beef dishes served abroad?

Fake Kobe Beef

Despite tough regulation in Japan, there’s nothing that legally prevents people outside of Japan from calling their meat “Kobe beef,” even if it’s not the real McCoy.

Kobe beef slidersWhen you see Kobe beef products offered outside of Japan, there’s no chance that it’s the same beef that undergoes such strenuous cultivation. Regardless, it’s still probably high quality beef.

Does It Really Matter?

The author of the Forbes article objects to foreign beef being labelled “Kobe” beef because he thinks that it’s misleading. He thinks that others are riding on the reputation of actual Kobe beef.

To me, this complaint seems kind of pedantic. It makes me think of people who say that champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France. That might technically be true, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy sparkling wine that’s incorrectly labelled “champagne.”

Does it really matter if the beef you’re eating isn’t 100% authentic Kobe beef? Most people probably can’t even tell the difference!

And besides, as Koichi covered in his post about “sushi abominations,” Kobe beef isn’t the only Japanese food that’s been altered in U.S. kitchens. Really, all bets were off when people started using cream cheese in sushi.

Japan doesn’t have its hands clean either. I’d be lying to you if I said all Japanese interpretations of foreign food is faithful to its origins. Just look at Japanese pizza and you’ll get what I’m saying.

Japanese pizza

Japanese pizza: not quite what the Greeks had in mind

It seems to me that most foods are only approximations of the authentic, genuine article. And you know what? That’s probably okay. As long as you enjoy the food, who cares if it’s prepared the “right” way?

So is Kobe beef a scam? If you have a very specific set of expectations, then you might be disappointed. But if you’re just looking for some high-quality meat, don’t worry too much about it.

[Header image source]

  • ですこ

    So if I were to eat Kobe beef, it’s either not from Kobe…

    …or maybe it’s not from cows…

     :(

  • Stroopwafel

    “In Japan, Kobe beef is a very tightly controlled and regulated copyright. Only beef that meets a certain set of very strict standards can be labelled as Kobe beef”

    Alright, so it’s very well regulated and of high quality, But what about the cows? Do the actual Kobe-beef cows get any special treatment, or is it just the meat?

  • HorrorChan

    Maybe it’s people! D:

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19509501 Matthew Olson

    I’ve asked my friends and coworkers about stuff like this, and they get really mad about it. Calling something different by the same name is a HUGE deal.
    I see patterns: If it’s not Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, or Yebisu, it isn’t beer; Japan-grown foods are a big deal (big on the 国産物); I know some people who will only eat certain foods (from specific dishes like takoyaki and monjayaki, all the way to specific ingredients such as oranges or onions) if they can get them from a place where they’re considered a specialty. I’m generalizing, but I’m speaking from my experience and doesn’t reflect the views of all Japanese people! You gotta admit, though, in a country with pretty discerning tastes, the food does end up pretty delicious. :)

    Thanks for the great article, Hashi! Interesting, as always!

  • jacqui keskinen

    no, what drives me nuts is when my husband and i talk about the fantastic kobe beef we had while in japan, and people like my brother chime in with, “oh! yeah, i’ve had that stuff before. they had it at a buffet i went to in arizona. it was pretty good, i guess”

    NO. YOU DID NOT HAVE IT. lol…kobe beef is not just “pretty good”.

  • phizuol

    On the one hand you already are getting fish a lot of times that you order “crab” and horseradish when you order “wasabi”, so it’s not like misleading naming is unusual at least in the US. On the other hand you aren’t getting what is being advertised, and that is pretty much how I would define a scam. Luckily you don’t have to pay the price of what real Kobe beef would cost either.

    They ought to just call it something like American Kobe as a compromise.

  • Mescale

    Tuesday is Kobe Beef day.

  • alan

    Hashi-san, Italians did not invent the Pizza. I think credit goes to the Greeks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shaun-Krislock/553071502 Shaun Krislock

    Up here in Canada, we have “Wagyu” beef which is sometimes marketed as Kobe Beef.  I haven’t eaten a lot of Kobe beef in Japan, so I’m not the right person to compare them.  But I have had a lot of beef in Japan, (shabu shabu is my favourite).

    What I can tell you is that the wagyu beef is much more marbled like Japanese beef is, and that it is hands down del-freakin-licious in Shabu Shabu or Sukiyaki or Yakiniku etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shaun-Krislock/553071502 Shaun Krislock

    Oh here’s a link!

    http://www.wagyucanada.com/index.htm

    Damn…. I think this weekend I’m going to have to have another Shabu Shabu party!

  • Guest

    I lived in Japan for 2 years and they most certainly had sushi with cream cheese while I was there.

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Doesn’t mean it started in Japan :)

  • Dy~

    The difference between the Japanese food “abominations”, like the pizza, is that I’d still eat that over a shushirrito any day.

  • PianoFish

    I agree. I would be annoyed if I ordered crab and got fish too, or if I ordered a pint of Blackthorn and got given Strongbow because the barman figures I won’t be able to tell the difference between one cider and another anyway. I expect to receive what I ordered and what I paid for and if I don’t get that I will be making a complaint and taking my money elsewhere. 

  • Stroopwafel

    I dunno man… sushiritto looks pretty tasty to me.
    You think there would be, like, a pizza with sushi on it… 

  • Michael S

    The Forbes articles also describe how unreliable the US “Kobe” or “Wagyu” labels are. Even if you want high-quality beef, “Kobe” doesn’t tell you anything about the food your buying. All it tells you is why you’re paying a premium price for what you’re getting.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I’ve only had the Nagoya version of Wagyu. Of course, Nagoya people say Nagoya Wagyu > Kobe Wagyu… I think this calls for a taste test.

    Anyone know anyone on the black market that can get ahold of the good stuff?

  • Alexander Rundberg

    It is a scam. Fake sushi, fake bolognese, fake pizza, fake whatever meal you can come up with is not a scam because it’s all up to interpretation. Champagne and kobe beef however are more closer to brand names. The only reason it’s ever OK to say champagne about something that’s not from Champagne is because sparkling wine is too long. Kobe beef however is a kind of beef that comes from Kobe and nothing else. Same could be say for a bunch of other meats, cheeses etc.

  • Alexander Rundberg

    “kobe beef is not just ‘pretty good’.”

    To him it could be, even if he had the real thing. I’ve had yamagata beef which shares a similar (though not nearly as good) a reputation and I prefere(d, when I still ate meat) regular beef to it any day. It had a very peculiar taste to it.

  • Bowenson

    “Wagyu” means, literally, Japanese Beef.

  • Guest

    If everyone’s really so concerned about mislabeling, then just do what insurance/loan companies do – continue labeling it as the good stuff, but put a line of *fine* print on the bottom of the menu: “Kobe beef burgers not actually Kobe beef. Kobe beef cannot, nor was it ever able to be sold outside of Japan. Next time you drop $50 on a cheesburger, at least do your research.”

  • Chris Lastnamerson

    I just wouldn’t buy it because of the ingenuity of it. I like my new プロフィル画像, by the way.

  • linguarum

    Add to the list of mislabeled American products from Japan: Kombucha. I like it and it gives me energy, but it’s not even remotely related to the kelp tea you get in Japan. And green tea. The stuff from Celestial Seasonings does not taste anything like actual Japanese green tea.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I hadn’t heard anybody say that about Japanese beer before, interesting! I’ve definitely heard kind of sentiment from American people before too about imported vs. domestic beers.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Well, shoot. Sorry about that!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Thank Koichi for the new pix :p

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Huh, for some reason I’ve never associated American kombucha with Japan at all, but then again I’ve never had the actual, Japanese kelp tea.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I didn’t find any reliable sources about the cow’s treatment, but I don’t think so. I could be wrong though.

  • Conpanbear

    I don’t agree; I think the name is at the stage where it is a trademark unto itself, and in this lies the difference between the term “pizza” and terms like “Champagne”. (Pizza has always been varied in form, and hasn’t the strict standards of Champagne”.) People who pay extra to get, what in their mind is, the “genuine article” I expect would feel cheated that they’ve spent more than they would have otherwise on a product that misrepresented itself. Essentially, it’s false advertising, and the consumer has the right to be informed about the nature of the product on which they’re spending money. In Australia, if it’s not from the Champagne region, it’s unlawful to name it such. The problem is, lesser products “piggy-back” on the fame of others, and can actually cause damage to the reputation of original. Just call it “wagyu” if it’s beef from Japan; it’s still fancy-sounding enough to foreigners, without being misleading.

  • Conpanbear

    I was certain that it was Italian. Not exactly a definitive, reliable source, but from Wikipedia:
    The term ‘pizza’ first appeared “in a Latin text from the southern Italian town of Gaeta in 997 AD…
    Many of the Mediterranean countries had their own versions of pizza, but at least semantically speaking, the term “pizza” is from Italy.

  • Conpanbear

     I think that it is the uniqueness of the cows make it distinguishing. They are a particular breed (Tajima-ushi) and, if memory serves me correctly, they are ‘pure’ in their genetic make up; that is, they didn’t crossbreed them with introduced European bovine. I could be mistake though; it’s been a long time since I researched this!!

  • berryz

    I’m not sure if there’s difference between Kobe beef and Wagyu beef, but where I live, they sell various types of Wagyu from Australia and various regions of Japan. They’re all very expensive with the Japanese stuff slightly higher. The stuff I’ve ordered at the restaurants is probably the Australian type and it’s pretty darn good.

  • Kiriain

     Soylent Green.

  • Mescale

    Its my experience that every country invented every food, depending on who you speak to.

    I used to know a girl from spain who informed me pasta was invented in Spain! 

    Quite often there are similar dishes from different countries with their own history, so its really hard to say who did it first or who invented it.

    Food really comes about from the need to preserve food, to make it edible, to make it interesting. So its not surprising that a lot different places have found similar ways to cook food.

    I guess we really need to define pizza first is it a piece of dough with toppings? Does it need to have a tomato base, what cheese does it use, is pineapple allowed? If its just a flat bread with toppings then I think many different countries could lay claim, if it requires tomatoes then you will limit the regions to those that can grow tomatos natively. etc.

    Is there a culinary-ornithologist in the house?

    Of course the inventors of anything rarely get credit, it’s about who makes it popular that becomes synonymous with a thing, the Romans probably take credit for a lot of stuff. Its not so much they invented stuff but they made it popular.

    I bet there were a bunch of greeks going all, hey man I liked pizzas before they were popular, then hose Romans came in and started putting pineapple on them!

    After all that I have to wonder if its worth all the effort, who really cares who invented the pizza, as long as it tastes delicious then thats all that matters.

  • http://twitter.com/Luimango lulu M

    I don’t want to be rude Mr. Hashi, but I kinda don’t agree with some of your opinions in this article.

    There’s a lot more to authenticity than just the “name” but also the quality.

    I feel like you just asked a chef to add more salt to a dish he prepared. It can be very insulting to the chef’s skills and repertoire.

    Everyone differs in taste, but awesome flavors are unique.

    Anyways, stay awesome Hashi!! (^^)

  • http://twitter.com/arleas_ Lee Rolfing

    maybe “kobe-style” beef would be appropriate.  That way you know it’s better than usual but it’s not pretending to be the genuine article.

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Hehe… Kind of like how we call Kraft slices “cheese product”? :)

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    So the Greeks are hipsters?

    Anyway, what you say makes perfect sense. There are very few foods and drinks that actually have definitive roots. There are a few here and there, but most food has been ‘invented’ in at least several regions that have nothing to do with each other.

    The fact that dishes are typically defined by the ingredients or cooking procedures makes it even more difficult. Then you add people putting their own spin on the dish and you can’t really give a definitive answer as to who made what.

    The only time you can say that only this is absolutely the only way it can be this dish/beverage is when the location and cooking restrictions are really strict. Thus the Kobe beef problem and the Champagne dispute.

  • linguarum

    Culinary ornithologist? I thought we were talking about beef, not chicken. :-)

  • Kim

    I had Kobe beef once in a cooking class in Kyoto. I learned that all the cows have birth certificates which show their lineage. You can request to see it at some restaurants. I think if you buy it at the butcher, they give you the certificate.  It even has the cow’s nose print…

  • Tititoto France

    That is because most people cannot tell the difference that we have to be strict regarding names, copyrights and provenances.
    It is just education. Culture, taste, etc.
    People have to learn by themselves what is beautiful and what is less. The only way is to tell them the truth: this wine is Champagne, this one is not. The cheese is “Epoisse” this one is Cheddar. This beef was raised according Kobe’s rules, this one not. This bag is from “Hermes”, this one is just a copy.

    No problem if some people prefer eating hamburger meat with Cheddar and Coke.
    Moreover, I think Champagne, Kobe beef, etc. are good because we cannot drink/ eat them everyday.
    Beautiful things have to be desired, have to remembered. The contrary of the every day life.

  • Kimchi

    Umm, regarding your caption under the pizza picture, “Japanese pizza: not quite what the Greeks had in mind” Don’t you mean Italians? Unless it somehow originated there. 

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    That’s what I wrote at first, but @263948fbc1194adcc89becdde04078ce:disqus  pointed out to me that pizza orginally came from Greece, not Italy.

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    The world’s #1 authoritative information database says…. GREECE!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pizza

  • Albi

    This product reminds me of the Iberian ham we have in Spain, which is made from Iberian pigs and can reach prices of 90€~200€ per kilo easily, and I can understand how people don’t like it when they are charged for something that isn’t the genuine thing. 
    I had a friend who swore he had tried it in Italy (probably Prosciutto) and that he didn’t like it…changed his opinion when I gave him the genuine stuff and was a bit ticked off that he had been duped.
    I have also had incidents when friends tell me to cook them something Spanish and become all shocked when they find out it isn’t spicy at all. I even had someone insist that I wasn’t doing it right and that Paella is meant to BE spicy! I almost slapped him across the face for that one ¬_¬

  • grotesk_faery

    I pretty much agree with this, though I think champagne is kind of a bad example because it’s become so widespread and Americans who aren’t really big into wine often don’t really associate it with the Champagne region of France, to them it’s just a type of wine, whereas Kobe beef is still really strongly associated with that area, and I think people DO expect to be fed beef from Japan (or at least Japanese cattle) if it’s advertised as such, while they might not expect champagne to be from Champagne. I think even calling the beef wagyu could also be misleading in a lot of cases, because wagyu technically comes from only a few types of cow (all Japanese), and I’d be willing to bet that most of the beef that’s advertised in America as Kobe or wagyu isn’t even from Japanese breeds, it’s probably just really fatty beef from whatever cows were available. I do think that there needs to be a bit more regulation of the definitions of foods that are specifically from one place, especially those named for the place. I think it would probably be hard to enforce with something like champagne, since it’s become such common practice here to call almost any sparkling wine champagne, but with something like Kobe/wagyu beef, it might be a little easier since it’s still sort of a new thing here and it’s still strongly associated with Japan because restaurants that serve it tend to sort of beat you over the head with the fact that it’s Japanese because it makes it seem fancier.

  • Shatterofdreams

    the thing is that “wagyu” beef from japan or anywhere else taste like butter and once you have it you can totally tell the difference between it and what america is calling kobe beef. With sparkling wine it actually taste like champagne from france. I understand you can’t call it kobe beef that is misleading what I’m upset about is that it still doesn’t even taste as good. Kobe beef doesn’t even taste like beef anymore people if you guys were wondering. It taste like beef bone marrow. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/LBWJT7P2UATG7XM4FJUMIFIZT4 Franklin

    A lot of stuff with a long Japanese pedigree is meaningless anyway. In Japan, that kind of lineage is important, but it is almost always 100% utterly meaningless. I know this very well because I’m actually working in the Japanese food industry (peripherally, doing some sales), and I can tell you that their whole system is based around, “Oh, this item was made in this special region, so it’s somehow better!” It’s not. It’s all the same.

    Kobe beef is probably just another one of those things. Ooh, beef from Kobe! From special cows! It’s all regulated! Well, yeah. EVERYTHING in Japan is strictly regulated by arbitrary, meaningless rules. And? Why should I pay more money for something I can get at my kids’ school? Arbitrary traditions and pointless red tape.

    Note that in Japan, Kobe beef HAS to come from Kobe. That right there tells you that the word “Kobe beef” in itself is meaningless. Why can’t Kobe beef come from those same cows if they were raised, say, in the mountains of Shikoku? Guess what – Shikoku has some GREAT beef produced in the mountains.

    Well, the reason is that Kobe beef is just like any other beef. It just has a pointless pedigree built up around it. You couldn’t have those same cows, raised the same way, fed the same feed from Shikoku and still call it Kobe because it’s just not the same!!!!

    That’s Japan. I like how the whole world bought the lie, though. “Oh, Kobe beef is special.” Nope, sorry. Here’s a protip: when a Japanese person says that this is the best, most special version of an item in Japan, they’re making it up. Someone, somewhere, centuries ago wrote that “Shikoku has the best X,” or “Kobe has the best Y,” and the Japanese just kept repeating it. And that’s fine for Japan, but it becomes hilarious when you realize that the WHOLE WORLD fell for it.

  • Meles meles

    “I think champagne is kind of a bad example because it’s become so widespread and Americans who aren’t really big into wine often don’t really associate it with the Champagne region of France, to them it’s just a type of wine”

    That doesn’t make it a bad example, it’s just an illustration of parochialism.

  • http://www.francky.me/ Franck Dernoncourt