If you want proof that accessibility of online information affects media coverage, consider the Kobe beef story that has suddenly become a hot topic.
Originally sourced to a writer on Forbes.com, the so-called “Kobe beef scam” has been picked up on MSNBC, wire services and hundreds of food blogs online. But is a story worth getting worked up about? Read on.
Like many American visitors, when I arrived in Tokyo a few years ago, I wanted to sample real Kobe beef, which I did. It’s quite pricey, but distinctively flavorful, worth the pile of yen I forked over just to say I tried it. Which is a product of the extensive marketing campaign connected with the raising and feeding of Waygu cattle from which Kobe beef is obtained—although I learned that the daily massages, the feeding of beer to the cattle and other alleged production methods are more hype than reality.
To qualify as Kobe beef in Japan, cattle must have been born in the country’s Hyogo prefecture (of which Kobe is the capital city), raised on pasture their entire life and processed in a local packing plant, none of which are approved for export to the United States. There are only an estimated 3,000 head of certified Kobe beef cattle, none outside Japan.
The Japan Meat Grading Association gives authentic Kobe beef from Japanese-bred Wagyu cattle the highest A5 grade (on a scale of A1 to A5) for marbling, and its lipid profile contains a higher percentage of healthier oleic acid than does U.S. beef. Plus, the fat in genuine Kobe beef will liquefy at approximately 80°F, which is why the typical preparation in Japanese restaurants involves a quick searing of thin slices, known as sukiyaki or shabu-shabu. Real Kobe beef can’t be grilled like we cook steaks—it would melt away all the fat and flavor.
And real Kobe beef sold in Japan carries a 10-digit identification number so customers know exactly which animal their (expensive) packet of beef came from.
None of that is common knowledge here, but what most self-styled foodies do knowis that even the “faux-be” Kobe beef available in the USA has extensive marbling, and thus added tenderness and taste.
So yes, as numerous food writers have suddenly seemed to notice, you can’t buy Japanese Kobe beef in the United States. Not in stores, not online and not even in high-end restaurants. That’s because it’s illegal to import Japanese beef, due to USDA restrictions related to foot-and-mouth disease.