Liebig’s Extract of Meat is a historical product.
It was a thick, dark, syrupy beef extract paste sold in glass bottles, and later in tins as well. It gained popularity first as a food for the poor, and then also as an ingredient in middle-class kitchens.
It was also called “Liebig’s Fleisch Extract” (“Fleisch” meaning “meat” in German), Fleisch Extract Syrup, or Fluid Beef.
“The Liebig Extract of Meat Company”, known as LEMCO, was founded by Baron Justus von Liebig (born 12 May 1803 in Darmstadt, Germany; died 18 April 1873 in Munich, Germany) and Georg Christian Giebert, a railway engineer from Hamburg, Germany.
Liebig was a chemist. His father was a salesman, selling painters’ supplies and common chemicals. Liebig worked first as an apprentice to a pharmacist in Heppenheim, Germany, then got a grant from the government of Hessen to study at the University of Bonn, then at the University of Erlangen. He graduated with a PhD in 1822, and received another grant from the Hessen government to study in Paris. Based on his studies with chemists there, he presented a paper to the French academy.
- 1824 — On the 24th May, at the age of 21, Liebig became an assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of Giessen. He had come to feel that humans got all their energy for physical exertion from protein (he was proved wrong. ) He felt that boiling meat diminished the nutritional value of it, and published his thinking in a paper.
- 1840 — Liebig developed a concentrated beef extract as a cheap form of nutrition for those who couldn’t afford meat. He had it made first at the Royal Pharmacy in Munich. Liebig called it “Extractum Carnis Liebig.”
- 1851 — Liebig ran an ad, saying he would give away the formula to anyone who could and would produce it. Liebig was finding it costly, requiring 30 kg of meat to produce 1 kg of the extract.
- 1862 — At this time, Giebert was living and working in Uruguay. He contacted Liebig to commercialize the extract. Giebert saw that cattle in Uruguay were raised and slaughtered for their hides alone, with the carcasses going to waste.
- 1862 / 1863 — Giebert formed a company called “Société de Fray Bentos Giebert & Cie” to begin making the extract. Every part of the animal, except the hides, was used.
- 1865 — The first shipment of beef extract, 1,760 pounds (800 kg) was exported to Europe.
- 1865 — On 4 December 1865, Liebig formed another company, Liebig’s Extract of Meat Co. (LEMCO), in London to raise money for the continued venture. He raised £150,000.
- 1866 — Their factory opened in the new town of Villa Independencia, in Uruguay on the Uruguay River (later the town was renamed to Fray Bentos.) The town was only 6 years old, having been founded independent of the company in 1859. It is a port at the mouth the Uruguay River, opening onto the Buenos Aires bay on the Atlantic ocean. The river here is very deep, and ocean-going ships can moor up right next to the factory.
- 1873 — They branched out into tinned corned beef under the name of “Fray Bentos.” It was a natural spin-off, using trimmings of meat.
- 1873 — Liebig died. He was buried in the Südfriedhof Cemetery, Munich.
- 1874 — Giebert dies. A man named Charles Croker takes over.
- 1875 — The company was producing and selling 500 tonnes a year of the extract, all made at the Uruguay plant. The operations in Uruguay employed somewhere between 3,200 and 5,000 people at its peak. The extract was transported from Uruguay in barrels, then bottled in different places such as London for the UK market, Frankfurt for the German market, etc.
- 1899 — The product was renamed from Liebig’s Extract of Meat to OXO.
- 1914 — During the First World War, the Fray Bentos plant supplied food to German troops. Part of the company was renamed to OXO Limited. A branch of the company called “Oxoid Limited” was set up in Southwark, London, with the goal of selling to laboratories and hospitals a form of the extract to be a medium in which to grow bacterial cultures. In 1965, it was set up as a separate company. In 1968, it merged with Brooke Bond, and then in 1984 merged with and became Unipath Ltd, until the start of 1997, when it first became a separate company again, and then in February 2004 became a company under the Fisher Scientific International umbrella. Oxoid, during the Second World War, was also commissioned to make food rations for the troops.
- 1924 — The Liebig operation was struggling financially after the First World War. The Uruguay operations were bought out by the Vestey Group of Liverpool, who named the Uruguay plant “El Anglo.”
- 1971 — The Uruguay plant was handed over to the Uruguay government, as it was no longer financially viable following a typhoid outbreak in 1964 traced to corned beef packaged at the plant caused by impure water. The plant closed entirely in 1979.
The company had another site in Argentina, known as Fábrica Colόn or Pueblo Liebig, six miles (ten kilometres) north of the city of Colόn. It was in a town called Villa Colόn, founded by General Justo José de Urquiza. A beef-salting and drying operation had been established there by an Apolinario Benitez with his brother. They sold it to a John O’Connor from Ireland; He sold it in 1889 to the “Sociedad Argentina de Carnes”, and by 1905 it was a Liebig operation. The factory made tinned beef tongue as well as the extract.
In Argentina, the factory provided workers with company homes and running water. The manager’s side of town had tennis courts. The ships came up the river right to the plant, which employed 3,200 people and processed 1,200 cows a day. In 1965, the plant started shipping frozen beef as well. The town was renamed to Pueblo Liebig on 17 May 1975. In 1980, the factory town and site were sold to the Vizental family. They operated a meat processing business there until they closed it in 1997, but the town is still mostly owned by them. Today (2007) most of the factory site is in ruins.
The third large plant OXO plant was opened in Paraguay in 1923.
The company also made Liebig’s Infant Food.
The Liebig Company’s Practical Cookery Book was published in many countries and languages, with each edition containing recipes reflecting the food preferences in that country (as well as including Liebig’s Extract of Beef in as many of the recipes as possible.) It was first published in the 1870s in Germany, written by Henriette Davidis (1801 – 1876), then in Austria, then in America, where it was written by Maria Parloa. In 1984, it was published in Great Britain, written by Hannah M. Young.
The company released beautiful, coloured lithograph trading cards throughout its history (and well into the OXO days.) There are over 7,000 sets in all, in different languages. The earliest cards in English date from somewhere between 1873 and 1878, appearing both in England and in America. Many of the cards were advertising, but many were also meant to be educational on topics from plants to fish to music, at a time when many families couldn’t afford books. They were produced up until about 1964 in most places; 1974 in Italy.
Liebig also invented the kind of conical flask that is still used in labs today.
University of Giessen is now named after Liebig, “Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen”
Liebig still has descendants alive today (2006.)
 Liebig was also wrong in thinking that searing the outside of meat would seal in juices, but he was so forceful a voice in the scientific field at the time that his ideas influenced several generations of food writers, and still do.
Literature & Lore
“Le déjeuner débuta par trois tasses d’un bouillon excellent, dû à la liquéfaction dans l’eau chaude de ces précieuses tablettes Liebig, préparées avec les meilleurs morceaux des ruminants des Pampas.” (“The breakfast began with three bowls of excellent soup, thanks to the liquefaction in hot water of those precious cakes of Liebig, prepared from the best parts of the ruminants of the Pampas.”) — Jules Verne, Round the Moon. 1873. Chapter 3.
Finlay, Mark R., “Quackery and Cookery: Justus von Liebig’s Extract of Meat and the Theory of Nutrition in the Victorian Age.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 66 (Fall 1992): 404-418.