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America's Big-Money Beef

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This Tuesday, June 28, 2011 photo shows a Wagyu bull named Hercules at Meadows Farm in Cazenovia, N.Y. Kobe beef from the United States can't be called Kobe. Because of an import ban, Kobe-style or Wagyu beef is the closest most Americans can come to tasting the legendary meat. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Half a world away from the secretive farms that produce Japan's legendary Kobe beef, Jerry Wilson raises the American version of the meat that will become $50 steaks and $13 burgers.

The chocolatey brown cattle at Wilson's Meadows Farm don't technically produce Kobe beef — that term is reserved for the Japanese super high-end cut famous for its succulent taste and eye-popping prices. Wilson calls his meat "American Style Kobe Beef." Other ranchers use similar names like "Kobe-style beef" or "wagyu beef," a reference to the breed of cattle.

Whatever the name, domestic production of the pricey product has grown from practically nothing a dozen years ago to a flourishing boutique niche, with recent growth fueled in part by a ban on Japanese beef because of reports of foot-and-mouth disease. While American ranchers might not be able to match the mystique of Japanese Kobe and much of the domestic product is cross-bred, they say their product compares to the legendarily luscious stuff.

"We can get through any door we want," said Wilson, watching his high-priced herd crowd a bucket of barley dumped on the ground. "All we have to do is a taste test."

Kobe is to beef what a Maserati is to sports cars: the epitome of pricey, exclusive luxury item. Steaks can retail for more than $100 at high-end restaurants and specialty stores. Don't look for it plastic-wrapped in the meat aisle of your local supermarket.

True Kobe beef comes from wagyu cattle raised in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan, where Kobe is the capital city. Japanese ranchers are notoriously secretive about their techniques, giving rise to stories that they ply their small herds with beer (to stimulate appetite in hot weather) and have sake massaged into their skin (thought to stimulate muscles).

Kobe is fatty, but not in a bad way. The thin veins are laced in so uniformly that cuts really do look like marble. Wagyu meat has a higher proportion of unsaturated fat — the "good" kind of fat — when compared to meats from other breeds. It's the fat that helps give the beef a flavor and mouth melt that sends tasters to the thesaurus in search of adjectives like velvety, scrumptious, silky and savory.

"You mention fat and it's like saying 'rat poison.' We've been conditioned to believe that all fat that you eat is bad. And that's simply not true, especially with wagyu," said Robert Estrin, co-owner of Lone Mountain Ranch Cattle Co. in Golden, N.M. Estrin raises "full blood" or 100 percent wagyu cattle.

There are about 150 U.S. producers in the American Wagyu Association, many of them with 25 head or less, said Michael Beattie, executive director of the industry group. The largest, Boise, Idaho-based Snake River Farms, slaughters 10,000 to 15,000 head of wagyu a year — a very thin slice of total annual U.S. commercial slaughter of around 34 million.

Snake River's Jay Theiler said their wagyu business is growing about 20 percent a year, with growth coming not only from steaks, but from hamburger, hot dog and barbecue meat.

"It's very small here," Beattie said of the wagyu business. "But the potential for this breed to grow is huge."

U.S. officials stopped the import of meat from Japan last year after the foot-and-mouth disease reports. So connoisseurs dropping $145 for a pair of 12-ounce wagyu rib-eyes are likely purchasing from a domestic producer or from Australia.

Most American wagyu can be traced back to a small herd that came over from Japan in the '90s. Many of the animals were cross-bred with Angus and Hereford cattle, which diluted the breed's unique attributes. At the Meadows farm southeast of Syracuse, all the steer they kill for meat are "purebred," or more than 93.75 percent wagyu. But farm manager Tod Avery said that not all wagyu sold to consumers has the same level of quality.

"They think Kobe is Kobe," Avery said. "They have no idea."

U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines do not permit the use of the term "Kobe" alone to describe American-grown wagyu beef, but labels like "American Style" or "American Brand Kobe Beef" are OK. And beef that comes from cattle cross-bred with Angus or other breeds needs to be labeled as such.

U.S. wagyu producers are in the early stages of developing a grading scale they say will reflect the superior meat they produce and the extra time and care it takes to raise it.

At Meadows Farm, Avery skips the beer and sake, but the 170 head have a couple of hundred acres to roam. They are not given growth hormones, steroids or corn (Avery said the corn makes the fat yellowy). They're on feed for two years, which is far longer than regular cattle.

Wilson and Avery switched over from a dairy operation in 2002 with a purebred bull named Ito and eight pregnant cows. They did not sell the first-generation offspring, but continued to breed more and more wagyu in each generation.

They are hands-on enough with their cattle that some of the animals here even have names. They talk about Ito, who was recently slaughtered after nine years of service, like a beloved dog — albeit one you would eat.

"I ate the tenderloin this week at my daughter's graduation," Wilson said. "It was unbelievable."

A wagyu carcass can bring the farm $4,500, minus the cost it takes to raise it for three years. Wilson said that though it sounds like a big number, "at the end of the day it's a few bucks."

Most of the farm's business is with local restaurants They also sell from the farm, and recently sold some hamburger patties made from Ito to a reporter and photographer as they left the farm.

Avery gave clear instructions: don't defrost the patties in the microwave, let the meat come to room temperature before cooking it, and grill just until medium rare.

Off the charcoal grill the next evening, the burgers really were different. They didn't shrink down. The taste was assertively beefy without shading into gamey.

Ito really was delicious.