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August 19, 2011

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US cattle fill niche for Kobe beef

JAPAN'S legendary Kobe beef is no longer imported to the US because of reported foot-and-mouth-disease, but US producers of Kobe-style beef fill a flourishing boutique niche. Michael Hill reports on the beef.

Half a world away from the secretive farms that produce Japan's legendary Kobe beef, Jerry Wilson raises the American version of the meat that will become US$50 steaks and US$13 burgers.

The chocolatey brown cattle at Wilson's Meadows Farm don't technically produce Kobe beef - that term is reserved for the Japanese super high-end cut famous for its succulent taste and eye-popping prices. Wilson calls his meat "American-style Kobe Beef." Other ranchers use similar names like "Kobe-style beef" or "wagyu beef," a reference to the breed of cattle.

Whatever the name, domestic production of the pricey product has grown from practically nothing a dozen years ago to a flourishing boutique niche, with recent growth fueled in part by a ban on Japanese beef because of reports of foot-and-mouth disease. While American ranchers might not be able to match the mystique of Japanese Kobe and much of the domestic product is cross-bred, they say their product compares to the legendary stuff.

"We can get through any door we want," says Wilson, watching his high-priced herd crowd a bucket of barley dumped on the ground. "All we have to do is a taste test."

Kobe is to beef what a Maserati is to sports cars: the epitome of a pricey, exclusive luxury item. Steaks can retail for more than US$100 at high-end restaurants and specialty stores. Don't look for it plastic-wrapped in the meat aisle of your local supermarket.

True Kobe beef comes from wagyu cattle raised in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan, where Kobe is the capital city. Japanese ranchers are notoriously secretive about their techniques, giving rise to stories that they ply their small herds with beer (to stimulate appetite in hot weather) and have sake massaged into their skin (thought to stimulate muscles).

Kobe is fatty, but not in a bad way. The thin veins are laced in so uniformly that cuts really do look like marble. Wagyu meat has a higher proportion of unsaturated fat - the "good" kind of fat - when compared to meats from other breeds. It's the fat that helps give the beef a flavor and mouth melt that sends tasters to the thesaurus in search of adjectives like velvety, scrumptious, silky and savory.

"You mention fat and it's like saying 'rat poison.' We've been conditioned to believe that all fat that you eat is bad. And that's simply not true, especially with wagyu," says Robert Estrin, co-owner of Lone Mountain Ranch Cattle Co in Golden, New Mexico. Estrin raises "full blood" or 100 percent wagyu cattle.

There are about 150 US producers in the American Wagyu Association, many of them with 25 head or less, says Michael Beattie, executive director of the industry group. The largest, Boise, Idaho-based Snake River Farms, slaughters 10,000 to 15,000 head of wagyu a year - a very thin slice of total annual US commercial slaughter of around 34 million.

Snake River's Jay Theiler says their wagyu business is growing about 20 percent a year, with growth coming not only from steaks, but from hamburger, hot dog and barbecue meat.

"It's very small here," Beattie says of the wagyu business. "But the potential for this breed to grow is huge."

US officials stopped the import of meat from Japan last year after the foot-and-mouth disease reports. So connoisseurs dropping US$145 for a pair of 12-ounce (340-gram) wagyu rib-eyes are likely purchasing from a domestic producer or from Australia.

Most American wagyu can be traced back to a small herd that came over from Japan in the 1990s. Many of the animals were cross-bred with Angus and Hereford cattle, which diluted the breed's unique attributes. At the Meadows farm southeast of Syracuse, all the steer they kill for meat are "purebred," or more than 93.75 percent wagyu. But farm manager Tod Avery says that not all wagyu sold to consumers has the same level of quality.

"They think Kobe is Kobe," Avery says. "They have no idea."

US Department of Agriculture guidelines do not permit the use of the term "Kobe" alone to describe American-grown wagyu beef. And beef that comes from cattle cross-bred with Angus or other breeds needs to be labeled as such.

US wagyu producers are in the early stages of developing a grading scale they say will reflect the superior meat they produce and the extra time and care it takes to raise it.

At Meadows Farm, Avery skips the beer and sake, but the 170 head have a couple of hundred acres to roam. They are not given growth hormones, steroids or corn (Avery says the corn makes the fat yellowy). They're on feed for two years, which is far longer than regular cattle.

Wilson and Avery switched over from a dairy operation in 2002 with a purebred bull named Ito and eight pregnant cows. They did not sell the first-generation offspring, but continued to breed more and more wagyu in each generation.

They are hands-on enough with their cattle that some of the animals here even have names. They talk about Ito, who was recently slaughtered after nine years of service, like a beloved dog - albeit one you would eat.

"I ate the tenderloin this week at my daughter's graduation," Wilson says. "It was unbelievable."

A wagyu carcass can bring the farm US$4,500, minus the cost it takes to raise it for three years. Wilson said that though it sounds like a big number, "at the end of the day it's a few bucks."

Most of the farm's business is with local restaurants They also sell from the farm, and recently sold some hamburger patties made from Ito to a reporter and photographer as they left the farm.

Avery gave clear instructions: don't defrost the patties in the microwave, let the meat come to room temperature before cooking it, and grill just until medium rare.


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