Kobe Beef: Are you getting what you pay for?
Kobe beef seems to be everywhere these days: All over the menus of fancy restaurants, in burger form at chain restaurants, in a Guy Fieri recipe for ‘sliders’ on Food Network’s website, even at humble culinary purveyors such as Sam’s Club or Amazon. However, most Americans would be shocked to know that none of us have probably ever eaten Kobe beef before, unless it was in Japan, since the U.S. bans all importation of Japanese beef. Recently, Forbes ran a four-part series on how “Kobe” beef in this country is the result of an unfortunate loophole in international patent law.
Authentic “Kobe” beef is actually a patented breed of cow from a specific geographic location in Japan that is protected by Japanese trademark law. True Kobe Beef is only produced in the Hyogo prefecture (of which the city of Kobe is the capital) from a type of cattle called Wagyu. There are four breeds of Wagyu: the Japanese Black, the Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled. Kobe beef usually comes from the Tajima strand of the Japanese Black breed.
However, these standards and the brand “Kobe” are meaningless in America and it has been known for some time that American producers use it incorrectly. They are able to get away with this due to the fact that the United States is not a party to the Treaty of Madrid, the main source of international regulation regarding the protection of geographically designated food production. Other famous food products associated with a specific area, such as Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, are also not protected under U.S. law and so anybody in this country is free to use these regional designations on their products. The same holds true for “Kobe” beef. American consumers might feel angered and deceived that they spent good money on something marketed under a false pretense, but the roots of this problem lie, strangely enough, in law.