How To Tell The Difference Between Real And Fake Kobe Beef
Given the value and prestige associated with Kobe beef, it is reassuringly straightforward to detect a fake if you know what to look for. Taste, price tag, appearance, and provenance are crucial factors when looking for authentic, high quality Kobe beef.
A5 Meats are ready and on hand to take you through what to look for and how to spot forgeries!
Where Does Kobe Beef Come From?
Kobe Wagyu hail exclusively from Tajima, which is a mountainous district within the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. Because of the geological features of the region, the farms and fields are smaller than average. Wagyu were perfect livestock for the area: used as heavy haulers. Their smaller stature, considerably tighter turning circle, and ability to negotiate compact land strips placed them far ahead of their heavyweight counterparts.
Not only that, their ability to store fats within their muscle structure (rather than around the muscles, as in regular cattle) means they have a ready supply of energy.
In return, Tajima provides Kobe Wagyu with soft, rich grasses for grazing and cool, fresh running mountain water. With significant fluctuations between day and night temperatures, morning mists and evening dew keep the fields luscious and green.
What Is Special About Kobe Wagyu?
To understand how and why provenance is so important, let’s look more closely at the Kobe Wagyu bloodline and its origins. Wagyu cattle cast their roots back to Japan, carefully bred over thousands of years. There are four main breeds of Wagyu: Japanese Shorthorn, Japanese Polled, Japanese Black, and Japanese Brown.
The Tajima bloodline descends from the Japanese Black, and it is within that family that Kobe beef belongs. The Japanese Black variety accounts for roughly 90% of all the Wagyu beef produced in Japan, but Kobe makes up only a fraction of that amount. Wagyu beef has a long and prestigious history.
Kobe Wagyu beef is strictly controlled, with tight legislation dictating what is – and what is not –classified as authentic Japanese Kobe Wagyu. The conditions required include:
- Birthplace – the animal must be born in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan
- Rearing – the animal must undergo farm feeding, rearing, and be raised exclusively within Hyogo Prefecture
- Status – the requirement is for the animal to be either heifer (a cow that has not calved) or a bullock (a steer or a castrated bull)
- Processing – the animal must be slaughtered and processed at one of a small number of accredited processing centers in the Hyogo Prefecture. These include Kobe, Nishinomiya, Himeji, Kakogawa, and Sanda.
- Meat Quality – the quality of the meat must score a six or more on the beef marbling scale (otherwise known as the ‘BMS’)
- Yield – the animal must score a yield grade of either A or B
- Animal Weight – the carcass should weigh no more than 499.9kg (at least 270kg in the case of a heifer, or a minimum of 300kg for a steer)
- Animal Age – the animal should be at least 20 months old, but not more than 60 months of age
Furthermore, Kobe beef carries a registered trademark status, owned by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association. They ensure all animals meet the above criteria before being labeled as Kobe beef.
There are seven trademarks owned by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association. The main, and best known, is the chrysanthemum (“Nojikiku” in Japanese). It is the flower of Hyogo Prefecture. Genuine Kobe receives branding with the emblem on four areas of the carcass. It also appears on all official paperwork.
Before slaughter, each animal’s registration certificate is checked and cross referenced with the unique ten digit ID number. The nose crest is also checked (essentially a noseprint). Like a fingerprint, each nose crest is unique to the animal. These steps ensure the link between a live animal and the distribution of cuts for consumption is robust and transparent.
Any animals that do not meet the criteria listed above cannot be marketed as genuine Japanese Kobe Wagyu beef anywhere globally, according to Japanese trademark laws.
How Is Authenticity Proven?
It all sounds great – but in reality, you’re not likely to ever meet the animal on your plate before it gets there to check its noseprint.
So how exactly does all this legislation translate into something tangible in the ‘real’ world? How can a diner see and touch real evidence, even without much prior knowledge of Kobe beef? The answer is in the paperwork when all else fails.
All genuine Kobe Wagyu animals receive a certificate, known as a “Kobe Beef Certificate of Authenticity”. The certification directly correlates to a unique ten-digit ID number that allows traceability of the individual animal’s lineage and history. Any establishment selling authentic Kobe Wagyu beef should provide this number as a minimum and may even be able to show you the accompanying paperwork. All ID numbers are traceable on the official Tajima Beef Certification System website.
What Does Authentic Kobe Beef Look Like?
We’ve talked about the ‘official paperwork’ aspect of authenticity, traceability, and identification. But what else is different? The appearance is another big giveaway. Let’s look more closely at what Kobe beef should look like and how a fake would be distinctive.
As per the official requirements, there is a visual identifier, the beef marbling score, measured on the beef marbling scale (or BMS). The BMS score runs from 1 at the lowest to a high of 12. A score of 1 or 2 will automatically exclude the carcass from being eligible for Kobe beef status. The quality is not high enough.
A score of 3 on the scale is the bare minimum, all the way up to 12. The higher the score, the more fat is marbled within the muscle fibers. The higher the score, the more fat the meat contains. A sample with a score of 12 can appear to be almost creamy white, as it includes such a high degree of marbling. Because the amount of fat directly correlates to texture, juiciness, flavor, and firmness, the higher the marbling score, the more expensive the cut will be.
Related: Why Is Wagyu Beef So Expensive?
You should see a high degree of marbling in the beef – far more significant than a standard cut, and more than you would expect from lower grade Wagyu. Wagyu beef’s appearance typically has the form of a series of small ‘pinpricks’ or dots reminiscent of a starry sky, connected by a web of delicate fat. Anything less than a noticeable web of creamy white fat is perfectly reasonable to question.
The flesh interspersed between the fats should be pink in appearance – again, the higher the marbling score, the paler the color. Highly marbled specimens have pale pink flesh that can manifest from time to time as a beautiful, rich, almost pearlescent effect.
How Should Authentic Kobe Wagyu Beef Taste?
Here we come to the main reason for Kobe beef’s well earned reputation as the crème de la crème of all meats. It is buttery – almost sweet – juicy, and succulent.
Kobe beef literally melts in the mouth, releasing umami aromas complemented perfectly by the flesh’s smooth, delicate texture.
The fat content is far higher than any other standard beef, as is every bite’s softness and juiciness. Anything other than a taste explosion combined with sublime aromas and exquisite texture cannot be authentic Kobe Wagyu beef.
How Much Does Kobe Beef Cost?
Japanese Kobe Wagyu beef is highly sought after and extraordinarily rare. The main reason for this is that very little Wagyu beef is, in reality, authentic Kobe Wagyu. Once all the requirements are met, and the carcass is certified, it is then available for export.
Here we come to a sticking point: only a fraction of Wagyu slaughtered leave Japan, with most of it remaining in the country for the domestic Japanese market.
In 2018, 5,557 Wagyu were slaughtered, with fewer than 700 permitted for export. For 11 months in 2018, the total exports of Kobe Wagyu were equivalent to just 17 Kobe cattle. That would feed only 80 Americans over the year. There are less than 300 authorized Kobe Wagyu farms in Japan to raise these precious herds with the care, dedication, and expertise to rear the world’s most expensive cattle.
In 2002, a Matsusaka cow (also a member of the Wagyu family) sold for 50 million yen, which converts to around $400,000! In reality, Kobe beef can cost upwards of $30 per ounce. We can see how the cost is another excellent way to spot a fake if something doesn’t seem right. There is no such thing as a real Japanese Kobe Wagyu steak at $10 per ounce.
What Is American Style Kobe?
You may have seen a product called American Kobe beef, or American Style Kobe. It is cheaper and more readily available than Japanese Kobe Wagyu, and with good reason: it’s not Japanese Kobe Wagyu beef.
American Style Kobe beef is not allowed to be labeled as authentic Kobe Wagyu because it is usually the result of crossbreeding. Generally, the breeds paired for this alternative are Angus with Wagyu (sometimes referred to as ‘wangus’) – producing a bigger carcass with a more ‘beefy’ taste and a far higher yield.
The American palate tends to be widely more suited to this slight variation on Japanese Kobe Wagyu. After all, Kobe Wagyu is likely to be the richest meat anyone outside of Japan has ever sampled. Still, they don’t have the full authenticity, provenance, or heritage of Japanese Kobe Wagyu cattle. As a result, it is far more widely available and carries a far lower price tag and quality than the real thing.
In summary, you should feel entirely reassured that everything adds up when buying genuine Japanese Kobe Wagyu beef.
The questions you should ask yourself are:
- Am I at an establishment or buying from a vendor where I would expect to find the pinnacle of fine dining?
- Does the meal cost what it should? Is it the price of regular beef or far higher?
- Can I see the official certificate or confirm the ten digit ID number of the carcass?
- Does the ten digit ID tally with the official Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association’s register? It is available online to check.
- Is the appearance of the meat pale pink in color, with a distinctive, creamy fat marbling?
- Is the texture of the meat smooth, succulent, and juicy? Does it melt in the mouth?
One way to be totally certain of the very best is to get in touch with us here at A5 Meats.
We are delighted to be able to offer a range of hand selected, authentic Wagyu beef. Each order is carefully prepared and delivered by rapid courier in special temperature controlled packaging - never frozen, only chilled. Our website shows the latest availability, with rare and exceptional Wagyu cuts a faithful customer favorite.