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Frey Bentos

URUGUAY | Thursday, 27 August 2009 | Views [4310]

The Refridgeration plant.

The Refridgeration plant.

Years ago, when I was first planning my trip to South America I was looking at a map and saw that on the Argentine/Uruguay border was a small town called Frey Bentos. A name from past, when corned beef was a staple part of the British diet but one still found on supermarket shelves. It’s always interesting to discover a town which gave its name to a brand, so when I was in Uruguay I thought go and see what was there.

Frey Bentos itself is a quiet, pleasant town on the banks of the Rio Uruguay and it is named for its connections to the meat industry because on its outskirts is probably the biggest industrial archaeology site in South America – the Anglo meat packing works.

This massive complex of industrial buildings was a company town, complete with workers houses, grander dwellings for the managers, a hospital, a football club and even a golf course. The factory, which was one of the first industrial concerns in South America and was originally set up in the 1860’s  by a German to produce a meat extract from Uruguayan cows, whose carcasses had until then been dumped, after their hides were taken for leather. The Liebig Extract of Meat Company was set up with British money to render down the meat to a product known to the world as OXO; and in 1873 it also started producing corned beef.

It is now possible to visit and tour the buildings which have been pretty much left as they were when the plant shut in 1979. An excellent museum has been created in the former abattoir, which displays the history of the site with a particular focus on the immigrants from all over the world who worked there. The captions in the museum are in Spanish but there are examples of wonderful old ads and Fray Bentos tins. In its heyday the plant employed 4000 workers and processed 400 cows an hour, as well as thousands of sheep, pigs and chickens; as the site is next to the Rio Uruguay, ocean going ships could take the products directly to Europe and the US.

I had my very own guided tour around the buildings (in Spanish only), which are much as they were when production stopped. None of the big machines have been removed and the huge compressors for the refrigeration plant and the meat cookers have just been left as they were. In one room thousands of meat hooks were piled up. There were separate walkways for cows and sheep, where they had a shower to clean them up before they were killed. In the factory’s switch room are banks of ancient electrical equipment, all imported from Great Britain and down at the riverside, were cranes and an old pumping house that brought water up to the plant from the river, all the machines British made. One massive building stored the carcasses ready to be shipped out; this was usually staffed by Russians and Scotsmen as only they could put up with the cold. Also on show are the company offices, which look perfect, if somewhat old fashioned, as if the workers had just popped out for a fire drill.

After being taken over by a British firm in 1924 and renamed the ‘Anglo’ the factory was expanded (helped along by the jump in demand during the two World Wars) to produce cheap meat for the world, which it did until 1979, when it finally closed. Britain’s entry into the EU effected sales and in 1971 the plant was given to the Uruguayan Government, who closed it in 1979. By that time it had become obsolete and unable to compete with modern Brazilian plants.  

I visited the plant in 2006, but in October 2008 a Brazilian meatpacking company, Marfrig, reopened part of the factory and is exporting corned beef again. It has a much smaller capacity and only employs 100 people. I imagine the museum is still open to visitors if not the tours and if you are in the area, it’s very worth while checking out.

View Pictures here.




Tags: museums



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