Conversation surrounding Larry Olmstead’s book, Real Food, Fake Food, which launched this week, has brought the counterfeit food conversation to the fore. In an article for Bon Appétit, the author dove deep into Kobe beef — the world’s most commonly faked meat. The TL;DR version is that you’re not going to get any real Kobe made into sliders. Maybe Kobe himself and five or six other people could afford those. But there are a whole lot of ins and outs to the issue for anyone willing to dig deeper.
Kobe Beef is one of the more coveted cuts of meat in markets and on menus across the world. But it turns out that unless you’re in very specific restaurants, you’re not eating “real” Kobe. Kobe is a regional variation of Wagyu (meaning literally “Japanese cow”). Think sparkling white wine from Champagne in France as being the only sparkling white that can be called champagne. In order for the Kobe to be authentic, it must hail from the Hyogo prefecture and be bred from a very specific breed of Wagyu — Tajima. When all these criteria are met, then we’re talking actual Kobe beef. All that humdrum you’ve heard about classical music being pipped into stables, cow massages, and beer diets is actually just mythos. In fact, the only thing that makes Wagyu, and Kobe, so unique are the breeding practices. Many of the cows’ lineages can be traced back centuries.
Wagyu beef is graded according to a marbling standard with a 1-12 point system. This standard also applies to the marbling of USDA Angus beef as well, so comparatively, “USDA Prime, our highest marbling grade, equates to about 4. Most domestic Wagyu or hybrids would score 6-9, while Kobe usually ranks 10 or higher.” This is measured against what’s called a Yield Grade which measures cut-ability that’s ranked A, B, or C — A being the highest. A few other factors are weighed and you end up with the highest grade of A5 or A4 awarded for prized Kobe beef. Wagyu beef not from Hyogo also ranks as high as A5, and there are absolutely American and Australian Wagyu that rank an A5. This can get confusing as the USDA also grades on an ABCDE scale for aging which Wagyu does not adhere to.
At the end of the day, you will pay more for a Kobe A5 than you will an average (by Japanese standards) Wagyu A5 because of the heritage of the Tajima cattle.