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What's "American Kobe Beef"?

Menu featuring “American Kobe Beef” burgers and dogs

I’d always assumed “Kobe beef” came from a particular cattle breed raised in Japan.

Indeed, that’s what Wikipedia says (for what that’s worth): “Kobe beef refers to cuts of beef from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, raised according to strict tradition in Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan.” It goes on to say Kobe beef must have the following qualities:

  • “Tajima cattle born in Hyōgo Prefecture
  • Farm feeding in Hyōgo Prefecture
  • Bullock or castrated bull, to purify the beef
  • Processed at slaughterhouses in Kobe, Nishinomiya, Sanda, Kakogawa and Himeji in Hyōgo Prefecture.
  • Marbling ratio, called BMS, of level 6 and above.
  • Meat Quality Score of 4 or 5
  • Gross weight of beef from one animal is 470 kg or less.”

That’s awfully specific. So what’s this “American” Kobe beef I’ve seen in the States?

I know that menu item got a hearty laugh from two intellectual property lawyers from Japan I lunched with a while back.

Judging by U.S. trademark registrations, use of the phrase seems like a free-for-all.

There are three registrations containing “American,” “Kobe,” and “beef,” each owned by a different registrant: MISHIMA RANCH EXCLUSIVE EXTRAORDINARY DISTINCT WAGYU BEEF AMERICAN STYLE KOBE BEEF and Design for “beef,” with “Mishima Ranch” and “Wagyu Beef American Style Kobe Beef” disclaimed; AMERICAN CERTIFIED KOBE BEEF for “marketing services, namely, promoting the sale of beef products…”; and PREMIER AMERICAN KOBE BEEF for “beef,” with “Kobe beef” disclaimed. Each is registered on the Supplemental Register, indicating the PTO’s belief that the marks are descriptive.

Some producers state their “American Kobe Beef” comes from an American-raised breed of Japanese Wagyu cattle crossed with Black Angus cattle. However, it doesn’t look like that’s consistent across the board.

A certification mark could sharpen the focus on what “American Kobe Beef” really is — and whether it even exists apart from (Japanese) Kobe beef.

Without one, it’s still not clear to this mostly-vegetarian trademark lawyer what that phrase really means.

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