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Who Raises The Best Steak? Japan And U.S. Ranchers Cultivate Related Bloodlines

Kobe beef is supposedly the finest steak in the world. It’s very hard to get -- and very expensive -- in the United States. But it's getting easier and easier these days to find more affordable “American style Kobe beef" or “American Wagyu” at your neighborhood steak house or upscale grocery.

The Japanese trade association for Kobe beef is not amused by how some of it is labeled.

Japan enforces strict rules on what qualifies as genuine Kobe beef. The rules cover geography, bloodlines, life span and grading of the meat. There's an industry association to promote and defend the brand. That association has long been unhappy about overseas ranchers and restaurants who label with terms such as "Kobe-style" or "American Kobe."

’Japan's best standard’

"Our association’s position is that only high-quality beef produced in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture is Kobe beef," read a statement relayed by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association. "We plan to continue releasing information so that overseas consumers will be able to understand this distinction. We hope that 'Kobe-style beef' will become commonly known as being completely different from Kobe beef, in both flavor and pricing.”

"Kobe beef is Japan's best standard -- difficult standard -- beef,” said Yasuo Sakane, the head waiter at a high-end teppanyaki restaurant in Kobe's Hotel Okura. A multi-course menu featuring Kobe beef there can easily reach $200 per person.

This prized meat is cloaked in legend, some of it difficult to believe such as that the area's ranchers feed beer to their cattle, play Mozart to them and give them massages.

According to Sakane, that is "a little bit true."

Sakane said he's heard classical music played and knows the pampered cattle sometimes get massages.

"No stress equals soft meat/beef,” he said. “That's true, relaxing cow."

On the other hand, beer-swilling cows, not true. That urban legend might stem from a practice of some ranchers adding brewer's yeast to their cattle feed to impart a sweeter flavor to the fat.

Sakane said he can't believe you can recreate Kobe beef overseas.

But Seth Mortensen, the marketing manager for the largest American producer of Japanese style beef, replied from Boise that imitation is not his company's goal.

Where the beef?

"We're not aiming to reach the level of marbling that they have in Kobe beef,” Mortensen said. “It's something that there is a small market for in the United States, but the space we are trying to occupy is between [USDA] Prime and Japanese Wagyu."

Mortensen works for Agri Beef, which produces of the Snake River Farms brand of premium beef. He said Agri Beef owns a herd of full-blood Japanese Wagyu cattle primarily from the Tajima strain, which includes the bloodlines that yield Kobe beef. The Idaho company crossbreeds those animals with domestic U.S. beef cattle to produce a blended meat profile.

"The reason we're doing that is that Kobe beef is meant to be eaten thin-sliced, very small portions. In the United States, when we think of eating beef we think of eating a steak,” Mortensen said. “This is kind of the perfect blend of both worlds. You have the savory beef flavor along with the delicate, buttery Kobe beef flavor together.”

Mortensen said Snake River Farms formerly used the term "American style Kobe beef" to introduce its product. But now it labels its packaging as "American Wagyu.”

Literally translated, Wagyu means Japanese cow. In North American usage, it generally means premium beef from any breed of Japanese descent. Mortensen said Wagyu is becoming better known in the U.S. and using that term reduces confusion about origins.

"As consumers become more and more familiar with this higher quality beef, you see a lot of retailers that are switching," Mortensen continued. "We are starting to see it a lot more in retail."

One way you’ll know the new label has caught on is if somebody’s parents names them Wagyu. Because, true fact: basketball superstar Kobe Bryant is named after a memorable Kobe steak.

Other Northwest ranchers are taking similar approaches in positioning their beef as genetically related to the legendary Kobe beef, but labeling it as Wagyu. Examples include Skagit River Ranch near Sedro Woolley, Washington, and Sutton Creek Cattle Company near Baker City, Oregon.

Taste testing Kobe beef

Genuine Kobe beef is exported to the U.S. is such limited quantities you are highly unlikely to encounter it. According to the Kobe Beef Association, the real deal is sold only at 11 certified restaurants across the entire U.S., mostly in California or Las Vegas.

Deceptive marketing by restaurateurs of falsely-labeled Kobe beef has spawned a flurry of class action lawsuits on behalf of diners, independent of the Japanese beef industry. At least three California restaurant chains agreed to costly settlements and consumer restitution between 2014 and last year, each without admitting liability.

A restaurant in Kobe served my introductory meal in the "yakiniku" style, which means the beef was thinly sliced and personally cooked by each guest at a small grill in the center of the dining table. The marbling on the boneless short ribs was quite extraordinary.

And the beef itself was also quite extraordinary. Super tender. Melts in your mouth with a rich, traditional beef flavor.

In Seattle's International District, the meat case at the large Uwajimaya grocery store has a generous selection of beef cuts sporting golden "Kobe Beef" stickers. The qualifier "American Style" appears in subtler font. The butcher said the beef came from cattle raised in Texas.

I bought a package of thinly-sliced short ribs whose rich marbling closely resembled what I remembered eating at the yakiniku restaurant in Kobe one week earlier. After grilling the meat in similar fashion at home, the U.S. beef was put to the taste test. The biggest difference was texture; the American-style Kobe beef, while quite tender, did not achieve the transcendent, melt-in-your-mouth feeling of true Kobe beef.

Price was also a differentiator. A steak dinner of genuine Kobe beef could set you back $175 during one of those rare weeks when selected U.S. restaurants get a shipment. The Texas-raised beef was comparatively affordable at $31 per pound.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.