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September/October 2019

Ever heard of LEMCO?

My resolve to stay away from the book tables at church fetes, garage sales and places where the detritus of people’s libraries wash up, was undone when a friend went shopping on my behalf and brought me a small book entitled Lemco dishes for all seasons. The author is Eva Tuite and the book was published in the early years of the 20th century to promote the consumption of the meat extract invented by Justus Liebig. The title is, in fact, an acronym for Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company. The book is available online and was republished in hard copy in 2007.

To quote from the book, ‘the Liebig Company’s Extract is the only meat extract ever prepared under the control of Baron Justus von Liebig. The Liebig Company was formed in 1865, and Justus von Liebig was in charge of its Scientific Department until his death’ in1873 at age 69. ‘He allowed the Liebig Company to use his name, on the strict understanding that every parcel of extract produced by them was analysed, examined, and approved by him or his successors. This control is still in force.’

‘Owing to a decision of the Courts prior to the passing of the Trade Marks Registration Act in 1875, inferior meat extracts, in no way connected with Justus von Liebig, or the Liebig Company, were allowed to be called Liebig’s Extract, and are sometimes still so sold. In order fully to protect the public, and render confusion impossible, the Liebig Company now affix their initials LEMCO to every jar. Every jar labelled LEMCO is the genuine Liebig Company’s Extract. Every jar not bearing the word LEMCO has no connection with the Liebig Company. The trade mark LEMCO is only used in the British Empire: in other countries of Europe the Liebig Company’s exclusive right to the name ‘Liebig’s Extract of Meat’ is fully recognised.’

The Lemco Company was established in 1865, and seemed to have had the field for itself for a while with its thick, brown extract. The beef came from Hereford cattle pastured in Uruguay, from which co-products such as hides and tallow were also marketed. The meat was cooked for 6–8 hours, fat was removed, and the aqueous mixture reduced in volume by evaporation at reduced pressure. A tonne of meat yielded 2.5 kilograms of extract. The works were located in the town of Fray Bentos, and the Fray Bentos name was used for canned products such as ox tongues, corned beef, ox-tail soup and beef marrow.

Advertisements for Tuite’s book began to appear in Australian newspapers in early 1904. They stressed that ‘besides being very nourishing, Lemco dishes are so delicious and tempting that the faddiest individual relishes them; they are so digestible that the weakest stomach can assimilate them’. The book contained 188 recipes for meat and fish dishes incorporating the extract, 20 for sweets (not containing Lemco product) to accompany them, and menus (25 in each case) for breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

Another meat extract that comes readily to mind these days is Bovril (‘a bull to a bottle’), first known as Johnston’s Fluid Beef that was developed by John Lawson Johnston for French troops serving in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. On the other side, the Prussians were boosted by Liebig’s Extract, so in some ways it was a battle of the beef (extract). Since the Prussians won a decisive victory, maybe their beef extract was better, although the reason usually given for their superiority was that the big guns that Krupp made for them were made of steel. They could take a bigger charge and send projectiles further than those from the brass guns used by the French forces. The shelling of Paris by Germans who remained beyond the range of the French artillery was a significant event.

Ian D. Rae FRACI CChem ( is a veteran columnist, having begun his Letters in 1984. When he is not compiling columns, he writes on the history of chemistry and provides advice on chemical hazards and pollution.

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