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Behind Every Good Steak There´s a Bull; High Priced Kobe Beef
 Likely Comes from Cattle Raised in Idaho
By Ken Dey, The Idaho Statesman, Boise
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Jan. 5, 2006 -  It may be called the Rolls Royce of meats, but it took a $41 hamburger to catapult Kobe beef out of gourmet magazines and into the mainstream of American culture. And while most people associate the high-priced beef with Japan, few realize it´s more likely to come from cattle raised in Idaho.

The Old Homestead Steak House in New York City created a stir last month by putting a $41 Kobe beef hamburger on its menu. The media frenzy that followed put the spotlight on Boise-based Snake River Farms, the company that provided the hamburger to the Old Homestead. "The $41 hamburger really jolted our business. The phone has been ringing off the hook," said Jay Theiler, marketing director of Snake River Farms. "We had no idea it would get this crazy. We thought: Who would be silly enough to pay $41 for a burger?" But many were. In one day alone, the New York restaurant said, it sold more than 200 of the 20-ounce gourmet burgers to customers including "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini and New York Mets baseball star Mike Piazza. Although it´s the burger that is bringing the most attention to Snake River Farms, a subsidiary of the Agri Beef Co., it´s the quality of Kobe beef that has created a loyal following of steak lovers worldwide who are willing to pay more for what the company calls "butter knife beef."

The history of Kobe beef, the product of Japanese Wagyu cattle, is far removed from the near mystical status the animals have obtained in recent years. Even the name of the breed, Wagyu, has assumed mythic connotations, when it fact the word means "Japanese cattle." The breed made its way from China, across the Korean Peninsula and into Japan during the second century, where Wagyu were used as draft animals to plow Japanese fields. Once the Japanese found that the animals were better on the plate than pulling a plow, the breed flourished in the Kobe area of Japan. At one time, sampling Kobe beef meant travelling to Japan or visiting an exclusive restaurant or store that imported the meat. But in the past decade, Snake River Farms and other Kobe beef producers have been raising Wagyu cattle in the United States. Agri Beef Co. brought 120 full-blooded Wagyu cattle and shipped them to the United States 10 years ago to start its Kobe beef business, Theiler said. Snake River Farms breeds its cattle on the company ranch in Baker City, Ore. Animals are then fed on company feed lots in American Falls and processed at the J.R. Simplot Co. meat-packing plant in Nampa.

Snake River Farms is now one of the major distributors of Kobe beef. The firm sells the highly marbled beef to restaurants and retail outlets worldwide. Because it´s a privately held company, Snake River Farms doesn´t release sales figures, but Theiler said the company sold just less than 3 million pounds of beef in 2002, an increase of 32 percent from the previous year. The company expects its business to double in the next three to five years. It was only eight months ago that the company first introduced Kobe beef hamburger to the market, and hamburger sales are now almost a quarter of the company´s overall sales. "The reality is that it´s as hot right now as it´s ever been, more product in the marketplace and more people exposed," said R.L Freeborn, president of the American Wagyu Association and owner of Kobe Beef America Inc., a rival producer in Bend, Ore.

Freeborn, whose company distributes products in many of the same markets as Snake River Farms, said raising Kobe beef is a good niche market that has excellent returns on an investment. "This is the Bentley or Rolls Royce of the meat industry," he said. Kobe beef ranges in price from just less than $5 a pound for the hamburger to more than $40 a pound for tenderloin. Regular supermarket hamburger sells for $2 a pound, while tenderloin steak sells for about $11 a pound. Dave Faulk, owner of the Porterhouse, a specialty grocery store in Eagle, recently became the first Idaho location to carry Snake River´s Kobe beef. Faulk expects the demand for the beef to grow as more people have a chance to taste it. "The flavor is intense," he said. "It´s very rich. A little goes a long way." Despite their successes, Lindsay and Theiler are still hoping to see Kobe beef served in a Treasure Valley restaurant. They approached some local restaurants when they first started distributing it, but restaurant owners thought it would be too expensive for local diners, Theiler said. The price may be higher, Theiler said, but the taste is worth it. "Getting it in people´s mouths is the key," he said.

Kobe beef good fat

A Kobe beef steak is fatty or, as the steak connoisseurs would like to say, "marbled." It´s the marbling that gives the steak its tender, juicy flavor. Although it´s highly marbled, the fat in a Kobe beef steak is lower in saturated fat (the bad fat) and higher in unsaturated fat (the good fat), Snake River Farms officials say. Kobe beef is also raised with hormone-free feed. The steaks come in three different grades that all score better than the U.S. Department of Agriculture´s standard grades of Select, Choice and Prime.

Kobe beef grades line up like this:
SILVER: The closest grade to Prime, this cut has marbling that is about 10 to 15 percent of the total cut.
BLACK: This grade has cuts with marbling of 15 to 25 percent.
GOLD: The top grade of Kobe beef, cuts in this grade have marbling of 25 percent or higher.

One important bull

Behind every good steak there´s a bull. And at Snake River Farms, that bull´s name is Fukutsuru. The Wagyu bull was born in the Kobe area of Japan and has been the main breeding bull for Snake River Farms. Fukutsuru is renowned for his marbling characteristics, a genetic trait that has led to his offspring producing some of Snake River Farms´ top grades of Kobe beef. Washington State University has ranked Fukutsuru as the top marbling bull in the United States. But all good things come to an end. Wagyu bulls live about 13 years and last year Fukutsuru went to the big pasture in the sky. But all is not lost. Thanks to the 100,000 units of Fukutsuru´s semen that the company has had cryogenically frozen, Fukutsuru will continue to be the bull behind some of the best beef to hit the plates of diners for another decade to come.

Pampered beef

What a life. Daily massages, free beer and your coat brushed with sake. As the popularity of Kobe beef has spread, many media outlets have reported that Wagyu cattle are special because their owners massage them, feed them beer and give them sake baths. Those myths may have been based in fact back in Japan, but in America they´re nothing more than bull you-know-what. Some Japanese producers still use massage to relieve stress and muscle stiffness for animals that are often raised in confined spaces. Beer also gives the Japanese animals their own case of "munchies," which helps stimulate appetite during the warm summer months. Brushing with sake softens the coat, which Japanese producers believe improves meat quality. But American producers say these practices have no proven effect on meat quality and aren´t used by U.S producers. "If you study the physiology of the animal, it´s just impossible for a 130-pound man to push or rub an oxen that is 1,800 to 2,000 pounds and have any effect on the meat," said R.L. Freeborn, president of the American Wagyu Association. "But if a man feels better for doing it, I´m all for it."


Copyright (c) 2006, The Idaho Statesman, Boise

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