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The Latest Expensive Japanese Import? Kobe Beef

March 20, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ Sickened by sushi and turned off by tofu? Not to worry. The latest Japanese food fad is one the meat-and-potatoes crowd will love - if they can afford it.

Darryl Strawberry, Axl Rose and Judd Nelson are some of the names that recently graced the waiting list at one Manhattan steakhouse for a juicy, butter-soft bite of Kobe beef.

But at $100 a steak, average Americans aren’t exactly stampeding to the few spots where it’s available.

″It would be a splurge,″ concedes Richard Tarlov, director of product development at Balducci’s, a gourmet food store in Greenwich Village. ″The cost is very expensive, no matter how you cut it.″

Kobe beef gets its name from a region in Japan where the best Wagyu cattle used to be concentrated. There it’s used most often in traditional dishes like shabu-shabu: raw, paper-thin slices waved in hot broth.

Scientists aren’t sure whether the highly marbled beef results from genetic characteristics of the breed or the life the cows live, which can be described as either pampered or inhumane, depending on one’s perspective.

To ensure the tenderest, juiciest meat - and because space on the island nation is at a premium - cows are kept tied in stalls for months.

To relieve the stress, they receive daily rubdowns with straw, a practice some believe also helps distribute the fat evenly throughout the flesh.

Cows also are bottle-fed beer on occasion to stimulate their appetites and break down muscle tissue.

The result is a beef with 30 percent to 40 percent more fat marbling than the best American prime steaks. And as any steak lover knows, the more marbling, the more tender and flavorful the meal.

Of course, more marbling also means higher saturated fat and cholesterol.

Lynne Scott, a registered dietician with the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee, says Kobe beef ″probably would not meet the guidelines″ for good health.

But that doesn’t deter some people. When two Japanese districts sponsored a taste test in Los Angeles last December, 4,000 people turned out for a sample.

Marc Sherry, co-owner of the Old Homestead steakhouse in New York’s Chelsea section, says he applied to import the beef after a 1988 visit to Japan, where a Kobe steak can cost $200 or more.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture refused to allow it into the country until Japan upgraded sanitary standards and instituted a satisfactory inspection system.

Japan, which buys more than $1 billion worth of American beef annually, had not shipped any to the United States since 1974.

The first Wagyu shipments finally arrived last fall after changes were made at three Japanese slaughterhouses.

Zen-noh Unico America Corp., the sole U.S. importer, distributes it in the New York area for about $45 a pound, according to Vice President Tokuhei Tamaishi. Rib eye, filet mignon and strip steaks are the only cuts available.

Old Homestead serves the 10-to-12-ounce, $100 steaks on specially designed platters. They get between 10 and 30 orders a night, Sherry said.

″It almost falls apart in your mouth,″ says Irving Sutton, a clothing broker from Short Hills, N.J. and repeat Kobe customer. ″It’s just so soft and so delectable and so juicy.″

Balducci’s sells up to 200 pounds a month to in-store and mail-order customers for $99 to $109 a pound, Tarlov says.

″There will always be people who will go out of their way to enjoy something exotic,″ Tarlov says. But he concedes, ″It’s an extremely small market.″

Tamaishi says he gets requests for the beef from all over the country, but is unable to meet the demand because of the limited quantity available for import.

Other companies are working on plans to sell Kobe beef in California and Hawaii, said Jeff Savell, a meat science professor at Texas A&M, where research is being done on Wagyus.

The Japanese have declined to export Wagyus, but a few have been bred in the United States using semen from animals smuggled into the country 15 years ago.

Still, no one thinks Kobe beef will push American chuck and sirloin from the meat case at the local supermarket.

″Low fat″ and ″low cholesterol″ are the buzzwords of the 1990s. And then there’s that price tag.

″The taste is very good for Japanese beef, but the cost is better for American beef,″ Tamaishi says in halting English. ″In my home usually we are eating American beef.″

End Adv Wednesday, March 20

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