Supermarkets cannot point to any one person as the founder of most of their departments — no single merchant created the produce industry, for example, or the spice category, or the deli.
But one man essentially did create the frozen food category, which now accounts for about $60 billion in annual retail sales in the U.S.: Clarence Birdseye, whose name still adorns a brand of frozen vegetables.
“Without him, the frozen foods industry certainly, as it stands now, wouldn’t exist,” said Corey Henry, vice president of communications at the McLean, Va.-based American Frozen Food Institute, in an interview with SN. “He was the father of the modern age of frozen foods. It was his work in inventing and perfecting flash-freeze technology that really made the modern frozen food industry possible.
“Without him, the industry may have evolved into what it is, but certainly it would have taken much longer, and could be much different without his spark of innovation that really got everything going.”
Birdseye’s key discovery — that flash-freezing could preserve the taste and integrity of fresh foods — and his invention of processes to make that discovery work on a large scale, laying the groundwork for the modern frozen food industry, earned him a place in the SN Hall of Fame.
Birdseye was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1886, and his entrepreneurial drive became evident at a young age, according to a biography of him that was published earlier this year. Among his early exploits was an effort at teaching taxidermy at the age of 9, and another venture selling frogs to zoos for their frog-eating reptiles.
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“[Birdseye] was a great salesman,” Mark Kurlansky, the author of the recent biography, wrote. “His obvious intelligence, his ability to articulate his ideas and his contagious enthusiasm always carried him through.”
In the book, called “Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man,” Kurlansky explains that Birdseye — who actually went by the name “Bob” rather than Clarence — spent most of his life pursuing a variety of adventures, hobbies and temporary careers, but he always had a fascination with food. His letters to family and friends often contained descriptions of unusual and interesting dishes he tried, from roasted game birds to molasses pies.
Although he did not finish college, Birdseye essentially became a self-taught naturalist and biologist, keeping detailed journals on his observations of wildlife and other topics of interest to him in his travels.
Observations in Labrador
It was during a stretch of time in the early 1900s when Birdseye was working as a trapper and fur trader in Labrador — where fresh food was scarce and preservation of food was of paramount importance — that Birdseye observed the phenomenon that would lead him to fame and fortune.
He noticed that foods that were frozen quickly, such as trout that were caught through the ice and left to freeze almost instantly in the minus-30 degree air, tasted almost like they were fresh when they were later thawed and cooked.
People had long been freezing food as a preservation technique, but the process usually produced a mushy, unappealing product. As Kurlansky wrote in his book, frozen foods were so unappealing that they were forbidden from use in the kitchens of New York state prisons because they were deemed “inhumane,” and retailers who carried frozen foods had to post large signs warning customers that foods for sale there had been frozen.
The phenomenon Birdseye observed in Labrador was that “flash freezing” — lowering the temperature to well below freezing very rapidly — prevented large ice crystals from forming in the cells of plant and animal tissues. The large ice crystals that formed during slower freezing methods that had been used at the time were responsible for degrading the integrity of frozen foods.
“During flash freezing, vegetables are frozen so fast that only small ice crystals are able to form,” said Chris Spina, a spokesman for Parsippany, N.J.-based Pinnacle Foods, which now owns the Birds Eye brand. “The veggies’ cell walls aren’t damaged, which protects their maximum flavor, texture and color.
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“In 1924 when Clarence Birdseye invented the frozen food technology, homes and stores had no freezers, and freezer trucks and railroads hadn’t been invented — he was truly ahead of his time.”
Birdseye credited his interest in flash freezing to his observations of the native Inuit people using this freezing method for fresh-caught fish in Labrador in the early 1900s, but it was Birdseye who eventually figured out how to apply the principles of flash freezing on a mass scale for practical use.
He developed a machine using a pair of frozen conveyor belts and pressure to freeze foods quickly to very low temperatures, as well as a waxed-cardboard packaging that would preserve the products economically.
Launching an Industry
Early on, Kurlansky writes, Birdseye relocated his business from New Jersey to Gloucester, Mass., where tons of fresh fish were coming in by the boatload.
“He was not as interested in founding a company as in launching a whole new industry,” Kurlansky explained in his book.
According to his Wikipedia entry, Clarence Birdseye sold his company, General Seafood Corp., and the patents for his related inventions to Goldman Sachs and the Postum Co. in 1929 for $22 million. He stayed on with the company, which eventually became General Foods Corp., and which founded the Birds Eye Frozen Food Co.
The company began selling frozen fish filets and a few other products, including cuts of meat and vegetables, in a handful of retail stores in Massachusetts in 1930 under the brand Birds Eye Frosted Foods, but it wasn’t until 1944 that refrigerated railroad boxcars made national distribution of frozen food viable.
After World War II, the development of frozen orange juice concentrate helped propel the frozen food industry even further, according to a history of the industry published in SN in 2000.
“Frozen foods were an enormous convenience — one of the great developments of the century,” said Arnold Brown, a futurist with New York-based Weiner Edrich Brown, as quoted in that article.
Other important developments included the invention of Eggbeaters in 1972 and the development of more frozen center-plate meals through the years.
The processes developed by Birdseye remain largely in use today across the entire frozen food industry.
Birdseye would eventually patent some 200 inventions, including some related to frozen food retailing and others more distantly related, including a new type of whale harpoon. He died in 1956, having transformed frozen food from unappealing mush into a multibillion-dollar industry.
“Food is very much an important topic of debate nationwide, and so people are rediscovering innovators like Clarence Birdseye to try to understand where their food comes from, and what the benefits are, and the benefits of frozen foods,” said Henry. “I think his spirit really lives on today.”
Consumers now are seeking more sophisticated varieties of frozen foods, he explained, and Birdseye’s penchant for innovation serves as a model for the industry to continue to evolve to meet consumer demands.
“Consumers want more variety in the types of cuisines that are available. They are looking for organic meals, for example,” Henry said. “And the frozen food industry is responding by offering an ever-expanding array of cuisines, flavors and new packaging to meet consumers’ more evolved set of preferences, and an evolved consumer palate and diet. Basically whatever type of products the consumer is looking for now, they are able to find that in the frozen food aisle.
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“And that ties together with Clarence Birdseye, who very much saw at the time the way people were eating and living was changing, and the way food was produced and offered to consumers for sale also needed to change. It’s that innovation that I think continues to be a hallmark of the industry, and that started with him. There are a lot of great minds in the industry, but he was the George Washington of frozen foods.”
In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine earlier this year, Kurlansky said frozen foods play a “bigger role than ever” in the modern food industry.
“Now you see more and more sophisticated versions of frozen food — frozen gourmet food,” he said. “Places like Trader Joe’s, where you can get frozen truffle pizza and things like that— that’s one of the things that has changed public perception.”
A Natural Process
Henry of AFFI also said the challenges facing the frozen food industry have evolved as well. While in Birdseye’s day he had to overcome a consumer mindset that frozen foods were of low quality, there was still pent-up demand for a high-quality method of food preservation superior to drying and canning.
Today, with consumers’ increasing focus on local and fresh foods, the frozen food industry is seeking to reinforce the healthfulness of the category.
“I think what gets lost in all this is that too often, people don’t think about freezing foods as being a natural process, but that’s what Clarence Birdseye observed,” said Henry. “He spent time with Inuit populations in Atlantic Canada watching them immediately freeze the fish they were catching, preserving it and eating it later.
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“He was able to take what was a very natural food process and scale it so that it could benefit the modern American consumer.”
Spina of Pinnacle Foods noted that frozen foods still offer a convenient method to meet dietary guidelines.
“The result of [Birdseye’s] pioneering invention may be our best hope to solve the nation’s vegetable gap,” he said. “Only 6% of Americans meet vegetable guidelines and only 23% of dinners in this country typically include vegetables.”
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