Over the years, Kobe beef has achieved a somewhat legendary status. It has an incredible amount of fatty marbling and a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth flavor that makes it completely unforgettable. Unfortunately, this Japanese beef is most well known for its shady history. A Forbes exposé revealed that anyone who bought Kobe beef in the U.S. before 2012 was duped because the product was illegal to import at the time, and the negative backlash didn’t stop there.
In 2016, Inside Edition called out several restaurants in for falsely advertising the coveted beef, which was only licensed to be served in eight U.S. restaurants at the time. Now, a new term has popped up — "American Kobe beef" — and we had to know: What is it about this meat that makes it so marketable?
As we dove into what Kobe beef is and how it’s raised, we also learned why it’s so expensive: Only a select number of cattle are certified each year, making it really hard to get outside Japan. Read on to learn whether you can find it in the United States, and if it’s actually worth booking a trip to Japan to get it.
The title of Kobe beef must be earned
Some foods are more than just a name: They’re actually certified to earn that title. France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), for example, has rules about whether wine can be labeled Champagne and dictates growing regions for cheeses like Roquefort. Tequila has to come from certain states in Mexico, and Italy’s denominazione di origine protetta (DOP) certifies real Prosciutto di Parma and authentic Parmigiano Reggiano. When it comes to Japanese beef, Kobe falls in line with these types of foods. It turns out that all Kobe beef is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu can be called Kobe.
The Japan Meat Grading Association has strict rules and standards that determine whether cattle can be classified as Kobe beef. For starters, the cow must be a breed of Wagyu — specifically a Japanese Black bloodline of pure Tajima gyu beef lineage. Then, it must be born, raised, slaughtered, and processed in the Hyogo prefecture (in case you’re wondering, the capital city of that prefecture is Kobe, which is how the beef got its name). Finally, if it’s between the age of 28 and 60 months and it gets the proper meat quality score, it is certified as Kobe beef. Only about 5,500 cattle meet the cut each year, which is significantly lower than the worldwide demand.
Japan’s meat grading system is much stricter than the one in the US
The criteria for Kobe beef are the strictest in Japan: After meeting all the lineage and age restrictions, the beef has to pass a strict grading system that’s unique to Wagyu. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has its own grading system for beef, dividing it into Prime, Choice, Select, or lower grades. This system primarily determines the overall tenderness and flavor based on the cattle’s age and the amount of fat streaking or marbling within the meat. The Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) has a more in-depth scoring system that goes beyond the subjective tests done in other countries.
It starts by ranking beef with a yield grade of A, B, or C. The cow has to have an edible meat percentage of 72 or higher to get an A, the highest grade possible. Then, there are five quality grades that rank the beef’s level of marbling, color and brightness, firmness and texture, and quality of fat. When it comes to fat marbling, the beef can receive a grade from 1 to 12 for Beef Marbling Standard (BMS); the meat needs an eight or higher to get top marks. By comparison, USDA Prime (the highest ranking in the U.S.) would receive a four using BMS standards. The beef’s final grade isn’t a culmination of the assessments; rather, it’s awarded the lowest number received in any category, so it must earn top scores in every category to get an "A5" grade — the highest score a Wagyu can receive. WIth such stringent standards, it’s no wonder so few cattle are classified as Kobe each year.