Uruguayan Beef; New Zealand Mutton


Peter Collins: Anglo factory, Fray Bentos, Uruguay (CC)

From the Journal of Global History:

While (Uruguayan) beef and (New Zealand) mutton were two different meats, their economics were not fundamentally different, for the simple reason that, unlike pork, beef and mutton were both preferred as fresh as possible. Shipping meat halfway across the world, as producers in both countries needed to do in order to reach their European consumers, was a major logistical challenge, and it had far-reaching economic and environmental consequences, as Cronon has shown for the case of contemporary producers in Chicago. They faced a similar problem within their domestic market, as they tried to supply East Coast urban consumers with the by-products of the cattle herds of the Great West. The diverse techniques for the preservation of beef and mutton available in the late nineteenth century had different factor biases, different energy intensities, and produced commodities that were at varying distances of quality from the superior product (fresh meat). The closer they resembled it, the faster demand for those products would grow as a response to increases in consumers’ incomes.

The traditional method of meat preservation – curing and preserving with salt – was capital- and energy-saving, and resulted in strips of beef jerky (called tasajo or charqui in Latin America). This was Uruguay’s key export staple to the plantation economies of Brazil and Cuba for more than a century, but it was not suitable for the increasingly sophisticated international demand during the First Globalization. The main input, besides cattle, in the saladeros (meat-processing plants established from the late eighteenth century onwards) was salt. The infrastructure required, as well as the scale economies, was minimal.

Of the modern technologies, the production of beef extract, patented by Justus von Liebig in the 1860s, and produced on a large scale for the first time in Fray Bentos on the Uruguay river, was the most land-extensive, as it gave small yields per cow. Cattle flesh was pressed into a pulp with iron rollers, then dropped into hot water, and, after removing some of the fat, pressured into thick gravy, which was then packaged. About 3 kg of meat were necessary to make 100 g of extract. Hailed in Britain as ‘the juice and essence of the strong oxen now feeding on the Pampas’, the beef extract marketed as OXO became a symbol of Uruguay’s global position in the industry.

The boiling down and pressing of cattle meat to produce tinned beef, such as the flagship Fray Bentos corned beef, was a much-improved version of Liebig’s method, resulting in a product with higher unit value and income elasticity of demand. Meat was chopped and tightly packed in characteristically rectangular-base cans, which would become a staple of British household larders and military rucksacks. Unlike tasajo, it required significant quantities of energy to boil down the flesh and to hermetically seal the cans, but the produce could then be easily and cheaply stored and transported, as it required no more than a cool dry place.

The most sophisticated method of meat preservation of the late nineteenth century marked a break from all the previous ones. Ammonia-cycle, steam-powered refrigeration had a fundamentally different factor bias, requiring large supplies of coal, not only to freeze the carcasses initially but also to keep them cold for twenty-four hours a day. It also needed sophisticated and expensive transportation, both to a port and across the ocean.

“United by grass, separated by coal: Uruguay and New Zealand during the First Globalization”, Clifford Thompson, Journal of Global History

Cover image via.

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