The Liebig Extract of Meat Company (Lemco) was the originator of Liebig and Oxo meat extracts and later Oxo beef stock cubes. It was named after Baron Justus von Liebig, the German 19th-century organic chemist who founded it.
In 1840, Liebig developed a concentrated beef extract to provide a cheap and nutritious meat substitute, Extractum carnis Liebig, for those unable to afford the real thing, but European meat was too expensive for it to fill that role. Instead, his extract was dispensed by the royal pharmacy as a tonic.
George Christian Giebert, a young engineer, read of Liebig's work and wrote to him suggesting that they meet to discuss opening a manufacturing plant in South America. The Liebig Extract of Meat Company (Lemco) was established on 4 December 1865 in London with a capital of £150,000.
Lemco opened its factory, owned by the Societe de Fray Bentos Giebert & Cie., in 1866 on the banks of the Uruguay River at Villa Independencia, Uruguay, later called Fray Bentos, where the extract was manufactured using the flesh of cattle that would otherwise have been killed for their hides alone, bringing the cost of meat to one third of the European cost.
Liebig's meat extract is a molasses-like black spread packaged in an opaque white glass bottle, and contains only reduced meat stock and salt (4%). It takes 3 kg of meat to make 100 g of extract. It was promoted in Europe as being invaluable not only as a supplement for the malnourished but also in the kitchen. The product enjoyed an immense rise in popularity. By 1875, 500 tonnes of the extract were being produced at Fray Bentos plant each year. It became a staple in middle-class European households and for soldiers, including the Allied forces of World War II. It was even used by European adventurers such as Sir Henry Morton Stanley on his trip to Africa. It is still sold by Liebig Benelux.
In 1873, Liebig's began producing tinned corned beef, sold under the label Fray Bentos. Later, freezer units were installed, enabling the company to also export frozen and chilled raw meat.
A cheaper version of Liebig extract was introduced under the name Oxo in 1899. Later, the Oxo bouillon cube was introduced.
In the 1920s, the company acquired the Oxo Tower Wharf on the south bank of the river Thames in London. There they erected a factory, demolishing most of the original building and preserving and building upon the riverside frontage.
The Liebig Extract of Meat Company was acquired by the Vestey Group in 1924 and the factory was renamed El Anglo. Liebig merged with Brooke Bond in 1968, which was in turn acquired by Unilever in 1984.
In the meantime, the Oxoid had moved to its own facilities in Basingstoke. With the Unilever purchase, Oxoid joined their Medical Products group and later merged with Unipath. In 1997, Oxoid became independent through management buy-out and in 2000, PPMVentures, a subsidiary of Prudential Plc, bought a majority stake. In 2004, Oxoid was acquired by Fisher Scientific. Following the merger of Fisher Scientific with Thermo Electron Corporation in November 2006, Oxoid is now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific.
The works and yards at Fray Bentos ranked among the largest industrial complexes in South America and helped usher in the industrial revolution there. The plant played a major role in the development of Uruguay's cattle sector, which is still one of the country's main sources of export products. It attracted many European immigrants and, in its heyday, had 5,000 employees. It is said that an animal was processed every five minutes. Every part of the animal was used.
In 1964, a typhoid outbreak in Aberdeen was traced to Fray Bentos corned beef. Investigations revealed that the cooling water used in the canning process at the plant was not being consistently chlorinated. Meanwhile, Britain's entry into the Common Market affected trade patterns. These factors combined had a serious negative impact on sales, and in 1971, the complex was given to the Uruguayan government. The plant's viability never recovered and the production ceased completely in 1979, a major blow to the area's residents. The complex is now an industrial museum.
Fray Bentos canned meats, now owned by Premier Foods, are still sold in Europe. The brand also offers meat pies, which have been manufactured in England since 1958.
A popular cookbook, The Liebig Company's Practical Cookery Book by Hannah M. Young, was published in 1893 and re-released in 1999 (David Brown Book Co., ISBN 1-870962-16-8).
Liebig produced many illustrated advertising products: table cards, menucards, children games, free trade card sets, calendars, posters, posterstamps, paper and other toys. These were often in the form of trading card sets with stories, historical tidbits, geographic tidbits, and so on. The sets usually consisted of six cards, one card included per product sale. Many famous artists were contacted to design those series of cards, which were first produced using true lithography, then litho chromo, chromolithography and finally offset printing. The cards remain popular with collectors and are often collected in albums.