1932 First Meadow Lea margarine released

Meadow Lea factory, Newtown, c.1965 Image: City of Sydney Archives

Meadow Lea was one of the first margarines marketed in Australia.  The brand was founded by Oliver Triggs, a Melbourne grocer who moved to Sydney and began a manufacturing operation. I have heard from his grandson that the date the business was established is still somewhat subject to conjecture, but it was certainly operating by 1932.

Margarine was developed in the mid-1800s in France. The term ‘margarine’ or ‘magarin’ was originally the name given to the solid portions of ordinary fats, including butter. The first ‘artificial butter’ was made by a French chemist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, in 1865, using beef fat from which he extracted the ‘margarin’. This early form of margarine became known as oleo-margarine.  One article, in 1874, asserted that 70 pounds of “butter” could be produced from 100 pounds of beef suet.

In Australia, too, early margarines often contained beef fat and were viewed as a cheap butter substitute. Until the 1960s, to protect the dairy industry,  regulations in some states prevented the addition of yellow colour. From the earliest days of margarine manufacture, dairy farmers were worried about the effect ‘artificial butter’ would have on their industry.  An article in the South Australian Register in 1874 fed their fears:

The question of establishing the production of artificial butter as a regular industry is, however, receiving serious attention in some parts of the world. Les Mondes, in discussing this subject, observes that ordinary fats are composed of three substances: -stearin, which is as hard as wax; margarin, of the consistence of butter; and olein, a liquid.

When these three are separated by chemical means, the first may be employed for candles, the second for butter, and the third for lubricating machinery. A Company is at present operating upon beef fat at 45, Newark Street, New York. In taste and in appearance the butter thus made is exactly similar to the best butter made from cow’s milk. Professor Parof , the inventor, hopes to drive genuine butter completely out of the market.

The editor of the Chemical Fetes points out that margarin may have the consistence but can never possess the flavour of butter, which depends upon small quantities of butric, capric, and caproic acids. Very similar operations are being conducted is England, the raw material being the fat of horses obtained from the knackers. If this be the only obstacle, however,  there is little doubt that the ingenious gentlemen who have manufactured jargonal pear flavour from fusil oil will procure caproic acid to order. Judging from the recent ‘butter controversy’ among chemists in Europe, chemical tests for purity of butter have failed, and there is now no obstacle to the success of Mr. Parof in driving genuine butter out of the market.

By the 1890s, vegetable oils (cottonseed, sesame and peanut) were increasingly being used along with animal fats in margarine manufacture. In the early 1900s, experiments with hydrogenation of coconut oil led to fresh fears among Australian farmers that cheap oils produced by ‘black labour’ would damage the butter industry.

Legislation was introduced in many Australian states to ensure that margarine could not be sold as butter. The 1893 Margarine Act of Victoria prevented colouring being added while in 1936 a new law required margarine be saffron colour. Quotas were also introduced in the 1930s limiting the amount of margarine that could be produced.

In other countries, even more extreme measures were taken. For many years Canada banned margarine altogether, while one American state required that it be coloured pink. Many of these restrictions lasted into the 1960s and Quebec in Canada didn’t repeal its law requiring margarine to be uncoloured until 2008.

Meadow Lea was run by Oliver Triggs until 1945 when his son Ken joined him in the business. In 1956, the company was sold to a subsidiary of Allied Mills. A series of company mergers saw the brand change ownership several times, ending up in the hands of the conglomerate Goodman Fielder. In 2014, Goodman Fielder was sold to Hong Kong-based investment firm First Pacific and Singapore agribusiness Wilmar International.

Today, Meadow Lea’s ingredients are vegetable oils, water, salt, flavour, milk solids, emulsifiers, preservative, food acid, natural colour and vitamins A & D. The milk solids mean it’s still not an all-vegetable product. The Nuttelex brand was the first all-vegetable margarine developed in Australia. It was also released in 1932 by Hugh Halpin. The brand was acquired by Gordon McNally and Ted Mayes in 1941 and McNally continued to run the company until his death in 1996, aged 91. It is still run by his son.

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