Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What's Your Beef?

Several months ago, Miami New Times ran a feature story by Jackie Sayet, "Bogus Beef," on local restaurants' mislabeling of beef sourced from American or Australian producers as "Kobe beef." The article confirmed that many South Florida restaurants were blithely describing items on their menu as "Kobe beef" that in fact were not.

Genuine Kobe beef, which comes from a particular breed of cattle (Wagyu) raised in a particular prefecture of Japan (Hyogo), is among the most prized (and expensive) in the world. In recent years, producers in other parts of the world have sought to duplicate the product, and there are now farmers in the U.S. and Australia who raise Wagyu and cross-breeds. The product is often quite good, though not of the same quality as the genuine Japanese article, and carries significantly lower prices. Though there seems to be a good bit of confusion, this is really not a complicated issue: if the beef doesn't come from Kobe, Japan, you shouldn't call it Kobe beef. As the article details, that simple rule is supported by Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which said:
The use of the term Kobe beef on a menu or special board is a misrepresentation. ... Use of the terms Wagyu beef, American-style Kobe beef, Australian-style Kobe beef, and (country of origin) Kobe beef are acceptable, providing the operator can provide supporting invoices and product to match.[1]
It was a well-written and well-researched piece, and I'm happy to hear that it is in line for a Sunshine State Award from the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists.

When the matter was brought to several restaurateurs' attention during the writing of the article, many of them claimed to be unaware and pledged to make immediate changes on their menu to correct the mislabeling. There's just one problem: it appears that virtually none of them have actually done so.

(continued ...)

The article detailed how South Beach steakhouse and cash cow Prime One Twelve listed $25 "Kobe beef sliders," a $25 "Kobe beef hot dog," and a $30 "one-pound Kobe hamburger" on the menu. Owner Myles Chefetz claimed ignorance and pledged to correct the problem:
We were not aware of the requirement for the specific labeling. Given this info, we will state this on the menu immediately.
Guess what? Six months later, and the Prime One Twelve menu still features "Kobe Beef Sliders, a "KOBE Beef Hot Dog," and a "1 Lb. KOBE Hamburger" - with no additional clarification or labeling.

China Grill continues to list a "Kobe beef tartare" with no explanation of the provenance of the beef. Plat Bleu in the Delano still has a "kobe beef slider" on the menu (their explanation in the article that they rely on servers "to explain where it comes from if a customer has an issue or a question," rings hollow, since a customer has no reason to ask a question from the menu description). Meat Market still offers a "white truffle kobe tartar," a "kobe beef slider duo," and a "kobe skirt steak," without any further explanation that those items are different from the Japanese A5 Kobe steak listed elsewhere on the menu (though in interviews for the article, Chef Sean Brasel indicated he had no intention to make changes, claiming "customers know" those other items are not genuine Japanese Kobe because of the price; methinks this assumes a higher degree of knowledge and sophistication than is warranted for many diners).

Of those restaurants listed in the article whose menus are available online,[2] only Gordon Biersch and 8 Oz. Burger Bar have actually done anything to address the mislabeling. Gordon Biersch, which said that a nationwide menu update in January would accurately denote the provenance of the meat, now has a qualifier on the menu for its "Kobe cheeseburger" that describes it as an "American-style Kobe beef burger;" and 8 Oz. describes its "Mini Kobe Corndog" as "American-style Kobe."

So the lesson remains the same: if you see "Kobe beef" on a Miami menu, be aware that it may actually be a lot of bull.

UPDATED: Got a tip that another Miami restaurant not mentioned in the article, DeVito South Beach, was actually cited for mislabeling of "Kobe" beef. Indeed, in a March inspection of the restaurant, DeVito got a citation for "Identity of food or food product misrepresented" referring to "KOBE BEEF TARTARE & JAPANESE A 5 CENTER CUT KOBE RIB EYE.." Initially, co-owner David Manero reportedly said that inspectors were "looking for little things" and the restaurant manager insisted they were indeed serving pure Kobe beef. A day later, Mr. DeVito's spokesperson had a different story from Mr. Manero's, saying he was "deeply concerned about the health of the restaurant’s patrons and also full disclosure and proper food service labeling" and that DeVito has "taken immediate steps insisting that the operators of the restaurant correct the problems cited by the state." The website now says "We are updating our menu, soon it'll be on-line again."

This is, incidentally, not the first time anyone raised the issue of the labeling of "Kobe" beef at Miami steakhouses.

[1]Honestly, I don't understand how "American-style Kobe beef" makes any sense. It is, if anything, "Kobe-style American beef."

[2]Bancroft Supper Club's website has disappeared from the intertubes (has the restaurant disappeared too?).


  1. Another excellent post, Frod. This is a pet peeve of mine as well. I recently visited a new restaurant where I live and found a menu item of Kobe flatiron steak (8oz) for $19.I brought the issue to the attention of management, who thanked me for picking it up and said they would change it. We'll see. it irks me, because I feel that it is blatant mis-representation and purposeful deception.

  2. I'd be suspicious of these places just for having Kobe hamburgers or hot dogs on the menu. That's like making chopped liver out of foie gras. It's not just beef that tastes really good; it's a different product that requires different preparation. Grinding it into sausage is a perfect way to waste it.

  3. To be fair to Prime 112, the great waiters go out of their way to explain the difference between their "American Kobe" and the A-5 selection on the menu. Unfortunately P112 is on the beach so you don't always get a great waiter there.

    I think Devito's A-5 labelling is far worse. No true Kobe would be sold without their grade, so their supplying a grade means they are working beyond hoping their diners are uninformed to blatant lies.

  4. Frodnesor: Thanks for the mention and heads up. Maybe we need to send them a little reminder that we are still watching.

  5. Man have I switched my stance on BS since that CH thread haha!

  6. billjac - You can include the inimicable Anthony Bourdain in your camp. He's apparently quoted as saying: "Enterprising restaurants are now offering the “Kobe beef burger,” enticingly priced at near or above $100 a pop. And if there’s a better way to prove one’s total ignorance of all three words – Kobe, beef, and burger – this, my friends, is it. It’s the trifecta of dumb-ass."

    As he went on to explain, the primary beauty of Kobe beef is the marbling of fat throughout the flesh - something which is rendered meaningless by grinding it into a burger. What you get is a burger with a very high fat content in the grind.

    Jason - the point is, a customer shouldn't have to rely on the waiter to explain something that is misleading on the menu itself. The fix is a simple one: just don't call it "Kobe beef" if that's not what it is. It's unclear from the report, by the way, exactly what the DeVito violation was. If in fact it was that they were selling something as "Japanese A5 Kobe beef" and it was not, yeah, that would be pretty bad, because genuine Kobe beef is probably about 4-5 times as expensive as American or Australian Wagyu. But the report isn't clear. I should also note that a subsequent inspection on April 28 was uneventful, but it's unclear whether that's because they demonstrated the provenance of their meat or corrected the menu.

    Of course, it ought to be easy to fix the menu these days, since the importation of Japanese beef is currently banned.

  7. Look, this is all about $$$. Plain and simple. I remember the first time I saw a "Kobe burger" on a menu with a price tag of $20 attached to it. My thoughts then were, "Wow, one word is all it takes to get people to pay $20 for a burger? Sounds like a scam." Those thoughts still hold true, especially in a place like Miami where even the slightest hint of luxury sends people into a frenzy to be part of that scene. It's bad enough that even angus beef burgers have got to the price of $12-$14 on some menus. At least we can be relatively confident that we are getting angus beef at that price. Then again, maybe not? The kobe beef burger is the ultimate way to hide what the meat actually is and its a shame some have stooped to that level.

  8. Hey Frod-The first and most important fact about Kobe beef is that the animal is raised in extremely cruel conditions, bordering on torture. They are not allowed to move much, often standing in deep piles of their own manure. That is the reason they are fed beer, massaged, and often (supposedly "lovingly")bathed. Not being able to move causes loss of appetite and lessens circulation-also they have to wash all the shit off the poor cow. Of course this all leads to "great marbling".
    As for your "quote" from the "inimicable(?)" Tony B, there are plenty of lesser cuts on a cow, even one raised in Kobe prefecture. Should those just be tossed to the dogs? Or can one make a delicious hamburger out of them if one knows how to handle meat? Doesn't sound very dumb to me.

  9. I also hadn't heard that the Japanese beef ban had been reinstated. When did that happen?

  10. MD - Long time no hear. Interested to know what's your source information on Kobe beef living conditions. The best I could find is this story by Barry Estabrook, who I highly respect, but find this particular one a bit troubling in that his source information is (1) a nearly 20-year old anecdote; and (2) a major competitor (David Blackmore, who raises Wagyu in Australia). There's also a bit of nonsense in there (he says an American Wagyu producer's beef "gets ratings that exceed the USDA's top grade of 'Prime'" - there is no rating that exceeds Prime).

    Even if what's relayed in Estabrook's story is true, it seems the living conditions fall somewhere between the low of typical factory farming and the high of the more enlightened grass-fed cattle ranchers; maybe closer to the low, I'll acknowledge. Fortunately, the times that I'm willing to drop $200+ on a steak are few and far between enough that I'm not faced with this particular ethical dilemma often.

    Yes, there are lots of parts of the beast other than those that become the strip steaks, ribeyes or filets that hit the luxury steakhouse plates. I'd be curious to know what becomes of them in Japan, but the reality, I suspect, is that 99% of the "Kobe beef burgers" on U.S. menus have no Japanese beef in them.

    Assuming the ubiquitous "Kobe burgers" actually use American or Australian Wagyu beef, yes, they can make for a fine burger. But I have a suspicion you could accomplish much the same thing by simply upping the fat content in your grind. I'd be interested in doing a taste test to find out. Who wants to sponsor it?

    As for the ban on Japanese beef: temporarily reinstated a couple weeks ago due to some hoof-and-mouth disease found in testing at farms, have not heard whether or not it's been lifted.

    "inimicable" = "inimitable". I'll talk to my editor about not picking up that typo.

  11. This seems to me to be similar to the problems with Champagne v. sparkling wine.
    Nowadays the general public seems to use the Champagne term without any reference to where it came from.
    Scotch, however, has managed to keep itself distinct from other whiskies.
    Perhaps because there are Kobe suppliers but not 'brands' of Kobe beef to help distinguish it, the problem of mislabelling can exist to the benefit of the restaurants.
    (a bartender can show you a bottle of Johnnie Walker to distinguish it from Jack Daniels but a slab of beef has no label on it.)

  12. i was at a broward restaurant last night where the waiter told me the meat skewers were kobe beef, although the menu said they were wagyu. (of course, when i asked what animal the sushi was, he kept saying nigiri. maybe i shouldn't have listened to anything he said.)

  13. This is all very reminiscent of the issues I constantly encounter with "organic" claims (and we won't get into "local"...). Unfortunately, there is both knowing and unknowing fraud being committed on a daily basis. I strongly believe it is the responsiblity of the entity that's serving the public (in this case the restaurant- in other cases, say at the farmers market, the vendor), to educate itself as to what is really being bought/prepared/sold, and communicate the information honestly and completely to the customer.
    For an organic item, it's actually fairly simple: if it doesn't have the USDA seal and certifying agency printed on the label, you can and should demand a copy of the current organic certification of the producer/grower. And your supplier should be able to provide it - if they cannot, then they are not allowed sell the item as organic. Period. (The exemption for very small growers ONLY applies to the grower making the sale directly, and neither the buyer or any reseller can further claim the item is organic. You can say it was grown without pesticides, or other unregulated claims, but you can't say it's organic.)
    If the inspectors were to crack down on this kind of fraud (beef, organic, certain fish, and a few others come to mind) with some $$$ teeth attached, then perhaps restaurants (and vendors) would be more attentive to the wording on their menus.
    Unfortunately, the cash cow has to be hit in the pocket hard enough to make an impression - otherwise, why change?