It would appear that the food industry has a problem being honest with consumers when it comes to labeling.Fish are mislabeled
, lean finely textured beef is onlygrudgingly being labeled
, and so on.
But most of that pales in comparison to the financial ride consumers are taking on Kobe beef. Larry Olmsted, a Forbes contributor, spent most of last week detailing exactly why American produced "Kobe" beef is as deceptive or worse than American produced "Champagne." "Food's Biggest Scam: The Great Kobe Beef Lie" touches on a great number of issues. Olmsted starts by point out what might be a bit of a shocking revelation for most of us: "You cannot buy Japanese Kobe beef in this country." It turns out Japan has banned the exportation of Kobe beef since 2010, going so far as to even ban the hand-carrying of beef for personal consumption. It's not even clear if it was possible to import Kobe beef prior to 2010, at least not in quantities necessary to put Kobe beef in increasing numbers of supermarket chains and restaurants around the country.
So if Kobe beef is supposed to come from Kobe, Japan... What on Earth are they serving us?
It turns out that they're serving us "American Style Kobe Beef" or American Wagyu. The problem Olmsted has with that is two fold. First, Wagyu and Kobe beef are often used interchangeably and Kobe is a subset Wagyu in the same way that a Texas Longhorn is a subset of American cows.
The second problem he has is that "American Style Wagyu/Kobe" actually translates to, "Japanese cows of varying types, crossbred with American cows so they'll be less marbled (the selling point of Kobe) and therefore more palatable to American diners." Because of that discrepancy Olmsted questions whether or not we should be paying as much as we do for a product that could probably use a more accurate label.
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Let's look at Modern Steak as an example. On Modern Steak's dinner menu you can see that they've tucked their "Kobe" beef burgers and steak under the header of "American Wagyu." That seems like a reasonable approximation of the truth because you're eating a crossbred Japanese-American cow. But on their lunch menu, Kobe burgers and hot dogs are listed without any indicator of whether that's actual Kobe or just Faux-be. Their beef supplier, Salt River Farms, explains that their "Wagyu Beef" is actually a crossbreed between a Black Angus and a "Japanese Wagyu" (which would translate to Japanese Japanese Cattle). While it's good that they explain this, let's return to Texas Longhorn example from earlier.
If a Japanese farmer decided to import high quality American cattle and breed them with her own Black Tajima-ushi (the specific and only breed that is actually Kobe beef), would it be right for her to sell the resulting product as "Super Premium Japanese-style American Texas Longhorn Beef"? Olmsted seems to argue that the correct answer is no and that being so deceptive besmirches the reputation of Texas Longhorn ranchers and confuses the hell out of consumers.
It is important to note that Olmsted isn't calling out "American Style Wagyu/Kobe Beef" as being bad, in fact he admits that they produce some fine cuts of cow. What he, and perhaps many consumers, is upset about is that beef producers are trying to piggyback off the fame of a Japanese product's name to up sell consumers on what is fundamentally a domestic product. Indeed, a product we as Americans should probably be proud to have created. Modern Steak cooks a fine steak but is it really worth nearly $300 a pound if it isn't actually being imported?