Prime One Twelve is one of the finest restaurants on South Beach. Gleaming wooden plank floors, exposed brick columns, and creamy white leather-upholstered chairs set the stage for a menu listing three items that, to devotees of fine food, might seem inexpensive: $25 "Kobe beef sliders," a $25 "Kobe beef hot dog," and for those with an appetite, a $30 "one-pound Kobe hamburger."
The problem is that the meat isn't what's advertised. It's not the product of cattle raised in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan that in some cases drink beer and receive sake massages.
Moreover, its listing on the menu is an apparent violation of federal standards and state law. "We were not aware of the requirement for the specific labeling," owner Myles Chefetz says when told of the problem. "Given this info, we will state this on the menu immediately."
Dozens of Miami restaurants include the same type of misleading information on their menus. And scores of customers every day pay top dollar thinking they are ingesting the world's most precious meat.
The list of offending eateries includes upscale and casual, local and national chains, and in Miami Beach and Brickell. There's 8 oz. Burger Bar, Bancroft Supper Club, China Grill, Gordon Biersch, Plat Bleu at the Delano, Meat Market, and Prime One Twelve. Contacted by New Times, representatives of each of these places admitted to serving high-quality American or Australian beef from similar cattle even when the item was listed as Kobe beef on the menu.
Indeed, the issue repeats in cities across the nation. Though the federal government has known of the trend for almost a decade, not much has been done.
"It's basically become a free-for-all," says Charles Gaskins, spokesman for the American Wagyu Association, a Washington state-based industry group with more than 250 members. "We're aware of the [federal] guidelines, but people do what they want... Some of them use the term Kobe in their farm names."
Kobe refers to beef from the black Tajima breed of Wagyu cattle, which are raised in Japan under strict ministry of agriculture oversight. Wagyu, which literally means "Japanese cattle," were imported to the island nation in the Second Century to cultivate rice. They have a genetic predisposition toward heavy fat marbling in the muscle. Prime cuts such as filet, rib eye, and strip loin are distributed the world over, prized for their rich flavor and tender, velvety texture.
Of course, this beef is expensive, selling for $16 to $30 per ounce depending on the cut, according to Anshu Pathak, owner of Kobe Beef Incorporated, a leading online purveyor.
So in 1976 and later from 1993 to 1994, some American farmers tried to come up with a cheaper product. They imported a few dozen Wagyu cattle and then cross-bred them with domestic Angus. The offspring looks similar to the pure-bred Japanese, but the meat is darker, with less marbling and a bolder flavor and texture. American Wagyu costs four to ten dollars per ounce, depending on the cut. (Australians produce something similar.)
This beef began to gain popularity between 2001 and 2004, when Japanese meat imports into the United States were temporarily banned during the mad cow scare. Now it's relatively widespread.
At the Bancroft Supper Club in Miami Beach, manager Karen Martin blames the restaurant's distributor for the menu items labeled "Kobe beef mini burgers" ($18) and "Kobe beef carpaccio" ($18), which she admits are Australian Wagyu. "The invoices say Kobe," she explains. "That's why we list it like that." She will work with chef Tim Andriola to make the description change.
Chef/owner Sean Brasel of high-end Lincoln Road steak house Meat Market lists a genuine Kobe item in a menu section called "Reserve Cuts." The "six-ounce Japanese A5 Kobe tenderloin" goes for $95. Then there's the meat labeled "Kobe skirt steak" ($31) and "white truffle Kobe tartare" ($21), which come from Snake River Farms in Idaho, not Japan.
Brasel explains that listing the real provenance of the skirt steak would be "redundant." "Customers know [those items] are not Japanese Kobe because of the price. In the other section with more expensive cuts, I specify."
Not all chefs understand they are misrepresenting products. Executive chef Maria Manso at the Delano in Miami Beach says her Plat Bleu menu offers "Kobe beef sliders" for $28 and then reveals they are American Wagyu. "The menu labeling comes from corporate," she explains. "We leave it up to the servers, who are well-trained to explain where it comes from if a customer has an issue or a question. There's no reason to change it." Phone calls to owner/operator China Grill Management were not returned.
It's perhaps more understandable that casual-dining establishments would mislabel their victuals. Take Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Gordon Biersch, which has locations in 17 states and Taiwan. The "Kobe sliders" ($10.95), popular at its Brickell Avenue outpost, are American Wagyu. To meet demand, corporate executive chef Bill Heckler also recently introduced a $13.95 "German Kobe burger," using the same beef, on his Oktoberfest menu.
Heckler will update the Gordon Biersch menu nationwide in January to accurately denote the provenance of the meat. He emphasizes the company trains servers to answer customers' questions about the product. He believes the majority of diners don't know the difference. "To my knowledge, use of the word Kobe was an acceptable marketing term," Heckler explains. "I recently had a situation with my rep where I specifically ordered Kobe beef from Japan and got American Wagyu instead. I wasn't happy."
Neighborhood burger joint 8 oz. Burger Bar in South Beach offers seven-dollar "mini Kobe corn dogs," also from Snake River Farms. Contacted by New Times, owner Eric Fried said he would immediately update the menu to include the word American.
"I was not aware that I was misrepresenting the product," Fried explains. "It certainly wasn't our intent to mislead customers. It's common sense, because I'm not charging Japanese prices."
Of course, blame doesn't lie with the restaurants alone. Inspectors, who regularly visit them, have done little to fix the problem. Incredibly, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service became aware of the issue almost a decade ago, explains spokeswoman Bridgette Keefe. "Restaurants started using the claim Wagyu beef on their menus. It was brought to our attention by the Snake River Farms company."
In 2005, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service launched a Certified Kobe Beef Program. It set guidelines for the Japanese product's representation in the American marketplace. States use these standards to build their food regulations.
In Florida, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) is charged with enforcing a 52-year-old statute, 509.292, which deals with misrepresenting food or food product. Violating this law is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 per violation. In extreme cases, prosecutors could charge restaurant owners with a second-degree misdemeanor, which could mean a fine of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail.
"The use of the term Kobe beef on a menu or special board is misrepresentation," says Jennifer Meale, DBPR's communications director. "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."
The department's 186 inspectors conduct twice-yearly reviews of each of the state's roughly 45,000 restaurants. Yet there hasn't been a single violation in the past three years for mislabeled Kobe beef, she explains. (By contrast, the department issued at least 33 violations in August alone for mislabeling of foods such as grouper, snapper, and crab.)
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A keyword search for Kobe on leading online menu website menupages.com pulls up 40 restaurant menus out of 670 in the Miami/Miami Beach area. As many as 30 menus might be misusing the term Kobe, judging by the description and prices listed.
The reason no one has been fined or criminally charged, says Meale, is that there have been no complaints in regard to Kobe beef. "It is important that consumers partner with the department to make us aware of any possible cases of misrepresentation," she says. "We encourage consumers to file complaints by visiting myfloridalicense.com." (Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
One restaurant that sells the real thing is Prime One Twelve. Its "Japanese A5 Kobe filet" goes for $30 per ounce, with a two-ounce minimum. The place can even present you with a certificate of authenticity. After logging on to a website, you can trace the biography of your dinner, including birth date, gender, parentage, breed, farm, and slaughterhouse.
"Our servers are always instructed to tell diners of the difference between the American Wagyu and Japanese Kobe," Chefetz reassures.