Everyone’s heard the stories of the sybaritic lives of the cows that are slaughtered for Kobe beef: the massages, the Kirin beer, the satin negligees. (OK, that last part is made up. But I’ll bet you’ll read about it on a menu soon.) The world’s most expensive beef famously comes from bovines that make the Roman emperors look modest.

At least that’s the line. But in December’s Gourmet (story not available online), Barry Estabrook asks a few pointed questions about how exactly these cows are reared. He gets very few direct answers—he dryly notes that “attempts to reach an official with Japan’s Kobe Association failed”—but he’s able to flesh out the real story from the few Westerners who’ve seen Kobe farms.

Raymond Blanc, the chef at the Michelin two-star Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxford, England, arranged his own tour of the Kobe region in the ’90s. He says that “the animals were kept in some kind of crate, so there could be very little movement. They were very dirty from their own manure—and I know a dirty cow from a clean cow. It was disgusting, such a contradiction from what I’d read.”

David Blackmore, who raises Wagyu cows—the breed behind Kobe beef—in Australia, says that in Japan, the cows are kept highly confined from one week old until they’re three and a half. He adds: “They get bored and go off their feed. Their gut stops working. The best way to start their gut working again is to give them a bottle of beer.” And Charles Gaskins, a Wagyu expert at Washington State University, says that if the enormous cows are massaged, that’s because they’ve become arthritic. “It’s a matter of keeping animals going until they are ready to be harvested.”

Estabrook, logically, analogizes this treatment to conventional veal production, and Japanese Wagyu cattle, whether in Kobe or not, seem to all be raised this way. But outside of Japan, some farmers raise Wagyu differently. Blackmore’s cows remain with their mothers for 10 months on pasture; after weaning, they’re left on pasture for six more months before going into “open-sided barns for up to 600 days to slowly gain weight on a blend of grains.” Wagyu cattle that have been on pasture won’t have “the melt-in-your-mouth sensuality and tenderness” of confined Kobe, Estabrook writes, but, as he concludes, “I’ve lost my taste for beef raised in a crate, Kobe or not Kobe.”

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