Marketing - Produce

After 1839 the cattle numbers quickly supplied the needs of the colony for food, tallow, breeding and draught purposes. However, other than hides and tallow, there was no outlet for the surplus as meat could not be stored or transported over long distances. In Britain, rapid population growth and cattle plague had drastically reduced the cattle herds in the second half of the nineteenth century, leaving a marketing opportunity. Initially canning was used and Australia was in the forefront of developing refrigerated shipping.

Photo No.: 108806 Title: The first direct overseas shipment of frozen lamb carcasses from Port Lincoln by the Steam Ship in 1930. Date: 15 Dec 1930

Technology in Australia(Technology in Australia 1788 - 1988,Ch 2, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, Melbourne (1988), (Online 2000)) 1788-1988 published on line by the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre( provides an extensive national history of the technological development of meat processing for export including canning and freezing. In the 1780’s Nicolas Appert, a Frenchman, began experiments that led to heat processing of food. Canned foods were known in Australia at least as early as 1815. By 1840 Australia had established a pastoral industry, but by 1843 multitudes of cattle and, especially sheep, were being boiled down for tallow. This crisis and the rapid introduction of the tallow industry which accompanied it have been described in KTH Farrer’s book(Farrer KTH, A Settlement Amply Supplied, University Press, Melbourne, (1980)) “A Settlement Amply Supplied“, Chapter 4. It spelt disaster for some but it catalysed the introduction, by Sizar Elliott, of the heat processing of foods. (In Adelaide in the 1840’s Bagot’s boiling-down works was established within view of the city slaughterhouse at Mile End).(Farrer KTH, A Settlement Amply Supplied, University Press, Melbourne, (1980)) When, therefore, in the wake of the boiling down frenzy, Elliott saw masses of cooked meat strewn on the fields as fertilizer he set himself the task of establishing meat processing in Sydney. All cans in those days were large by modern standards, 6 lb being the most common size. This led, of course, to serious over-cooking, which was the major criticism levelled at Australian canned meats when they were introduced to the general British market some twenty years later. Refinements of the techniques and processing methods resulted in companies developing across eastern Australia to meet the market. In the decade 1869-79 the Australian meat preserving industry exported some 65,000 tons of preserved meats to England, and 19,300 tons in 1871-2. This trade was stimulated by the demand for meat resulting from the shortage induced by the cattle plague in England and was aided by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 and the virtual lack of competition from the Americas until late in the decade.
Heat processing was the first major innovation in food technology in the nineteenth century; the second was refrigeration and though others in other parts of the world had successfully lowered temperatures mechanically, the first mechanical ice making machine was put into operation in 1851 by James Harrison at Rocky Point on the banks of the Barwon River at Geelong in Victoria(Farrer KTH, A Settlement Amply Supplied, University Press, Melbourne, (1980)). It failed financially because he could not beat the vested interests who imported natural lake ice from North America. Harrison had begun with an ice making machine, but the thrust of Australian work on refrigeration from the 1860s onwards was towards the export of fresh carcase meat to England. That is, through the tropics, a problem which did not confront the North Americans, who relied on natural cold. The Americans and Canadians could ship meat to England without too much trouble, especially in winter, but the South Americans and Australians simply had to solve the problems of shipboard refrigeration. The meat and some experimental kegs of butter were loaded from chill rooms in Sydney and Melbourne and, freezing the consignment on board, the ship Strathleven left Melbourne on 6 December 1879 and arrived in London on 2 February 1880. Technical men travelled on the ship to oversee the trials and the voyage was well documented. The meat was in excellent condition on arrival and sold well. The trade developed slowly, inhibited by the lack of refrigerated ships. The first shipment of frozen meat was exported from Port Adelaide to Britain in 1895. Unsightly drip and freezer burn were two problems that faced the frozen shipping industry.

Export of Frozen Meat 1881-1900 (Tonnes)
From: K. T. H. Farrer, A Settlement Amply Supplied, p. 250 amended.
In 1932 work at Cambridge showed that the storage life of chilled beef could be doubled by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of the refrigeration chamber. The chilled meat trade rose rapidly to 29,000 tons by 1937-8. Only a few shipments of chilled meat were made after the war. The cost of fitting up gas-tight chambers was high, and frozen meat was then preferred because of its very much better keeping quality.

Advances were made in the understanding and control of freezer-burn, in rapid chilling without excessive weight losses, and in the electrical stimulation of carcases during dressing to reduce toughness. During the Second World War a lot of meat was boned before shipment to save space. It was packed in cartons and frozen but the technique lapsed until 1957, when it was re-examined. It was revived with the help of plastic wrapping, a barrier to carbon dioxide and water vapour, vacuum packing, and the design by the refrigeration industry of more efficient blast freezers. High tonnages of beef and mutton are now exported in this manner.

Other advances at that time included the introduction, from abroad, of the mechanical removal of hides which increased through-put and reduced damage to both hides and carcases. In addition, exports to the United States led to demands for major improvements in buildings, equipment and handling to reduce Salmonella contamination.