All for the love of Tajima cows

Is there any truth behind the stories that surround Kobe-beef husbandry?

by Daniel Krieger

When you hear the term, “Kobe beef,” a few things are likely to come to mind: the velvety, fatty richness of the meat, the extraordinarily high price of a steak and the lavish lifestyle of the cattle. The pampering these cows receive is renowned and the image of beer-chugging bovines has been seared into the popular imagination.

But it turns out that the imagination is where such tales belong. So says Yoshinori Nakanishi, a Kobe cattle farmer who’s been in the business for nearly 40 years. “Neither I nor any beef farmer I know would ever dream of giving cows beer,” he says.

Nakanishi, 56, explains that what Kobe beef really comes down to is love for the highly sensitive creatures, proper care and feeding them the right blend of grains and grass. The rest is taken care of by nature, which does a fine job of turning out a meat whose level of quality is in the stratosphere.

A relative newcomer to Japanese cuisine, beef didn’t become part of the diet until a little over 100 years ago. Till then, cows native to Japan, called wagyu, had been used only as work cattle. Of wagyu’s four varieties, the one that’s risen to international stardom because of Kobe beef is Tajima, which belongs to the Kuroge Wagyu (Japanese Black) breed, hailing from Hyogo Prefecture. Yet there’s always been a fair amount of confusion about what exactly Kobe beef is.

To settle the matter, in 1983 the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association was formed. They created a strict grading system with a scale of A1 to A5. According to the Japan Meat Grading Association, true Kobe beef can only come from purebred Tajima cattle born and raised in Hyogo that achieve a ranking of A4 or A5. Anything of a lower grade is labeled Tajima beef. Restaurants that serve real Kobe beef are certified and display a small bronze Tajima cow statue, the association’s official seal of authenticity.

The Nakanishi farm is nestled among the rolling green hills of the Kobe countryside, about 25 km west of Kobe city, overlooking a vineyard. Nakanishi learned the trade from his dad, who started the farm just after World War II. After taking over, he created the Nakanishi Group, a collective of 20 farms that he oversees and which follow his regimen.

Two years ago, he passed ownership of all the farms on to his 30-year-old son, Hitoshi. And though he likes to say he’s “retired,” he still toils up to 14 hours a day. Together, father and son tend their herd of 170, a fraction of the Nakanishi Group’s 3,000 total, half of which are slaughtered every year.

Seventy percent of the whole group’s cattle, and 99 percent of Nakanishi’s own cattle, earn the esteemed Kobe beef grade. Of the 5,500 head of Tajima cattle that go to market yearly, only about 3,000 get this imprimatur, a full third of which comes from the Nakanishi Group, the leading producer in the industry.

One task that makes a day at the farm so long is the vigilant monitoring of the herd.

“Each animal has a unique temperament and (different) needs,” Nakanishi says. “My job is to figure those out and keep them in good health.”

The animal’s eating habits are observed and their physical condition is constantly checked, starting with the eyes. “I could increase the number of cows I raise by not doing all of this,” he says, “but then the quality wouldn’t be as good, would it?” The awards Nakanishi has won at competitions for his champion beasts attest to such perfectionism.

Another key factor in the raising of Kobe beef livestock, he says, is the feed — a carefully chosen organic mixture of grass, rice straw, soybeans, wheat, barley and corn (without any growth hormones or antibiotics). “There is a technique to how I blend all of these together,” he explains, “which depends on the season, the age of the animals, and their condition.”

A big concern these days is foot-and-mouth disease, which hit southern Japan in April, wiping out a few hundred thousand cattle. Kobe, so far, has been in the clear. Though Nakanishi aims to produce great-tasting beef, he places an even higher priority on making sure it’s safe, and his chemical-free approach, combined with his meticulous, care assures this.

Consumed by the endless task of taking care of the herd, Nakanishi leaves the business side to his friend and longtime associate, Yoshimitsu Sotoike, the president of Teishin Chikusan, a Japanese beef-distribution company that handles most of Nakanishi’s stock. (One kg of sirloin goes for ¥30,000.)

Two years ago, in response to the lack of authentic Kobe beef venues, Sotoike opened the Yoshimitsu Kobe Beef Steakhouse in Kobe’s city. “My mission,” he says, “is to protect the Kobe beef brand and pass it on to the next generation.”

Though these cattle don’t live the lush life they are believed to, as far as cattle standards of living go, they have it made. The are kept in peak health; given a natural, organic diet; and, when compared to some other beef farms, their life is relatively stress free. It’s doubtful that alcohol, massage and music could add anything to that.

Kobe beef: fact vs. fiction

Kobe cows are fed beer. False. Yoshinori Nakanishi says this myth started 30 years ago when a restaurant did a promotional stunt in which a Tajima cow was fed beer.

Kobe cows get regular massages. False. “If I massaged my herd of 170,” says Nakanishi, “I’d have no time left for sleep.”

Kobe cows listen to classical music. False. Nor do they listen to any other genre.

Kobe beef is sold outside Japan. False. No authentic Kobe beef is exported, mainly because of limited supply. Some restaurants abroad offer a cross between Wagyu and Angus cattle, which may amount to a Kobe-style beef.

There is no way to be certain that a piece of Kobe beef is genuine. False. This can be checked, using the 10-digit serial number that each animal has been issued, which can be checked on the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association’s Web site: www.kobe-niku.jp

U.S. basketball player Kobe Bryant is named after Kobe beef. True. (And not vice versa.) The story goes that Kobe’s father saw the item on a menu, thought it sounded cool and gave the name to his son. That has not, however, stopped Bryant from suing the city of Kobe because he feels the beef’s name harms his own brand.