A Chilling History of Frozen Food

Swanson TV Dinner
Swanson TV Dinner. Courtesy of the Pinnacle Foods Corporation

When we crave fresh fruits and vegetables in the middle of winter, we can thank an American taxidermist for making possible the next best thing.

 

Clarence Birdseye, who invented and commercialized a method for quick-freezing food products in convenient packages and without altering the original taste, was simply seeking a way for his family to have fresh food all year round. The solution came to him while conducting fieldwork in the arctic, where he observed how the Inuit would preserve freshly caught fish and others meats in barrels of sea water that quickly froze due to the frigid climate.

The fish were later thawed, cooked and most importantly tasted fresh -- much more so than anything at the fish markets back at home. He surmised that it was this practice of rapid freezing in extremely low temperatures that allowed meat to retain freshness once thawed and served months later.

 

 

 

Back in the U.S., commercial foods were typically chilled at a higher temperature and thus took longer to freeze. Compared to conventional techniques, fast freezing causes smaller ice crystals to form, which is less likely to damage the food. So in 1923, with an investment of $7 for an electric fan, buckets of brine, and cakes of ice, Clarence Birdseye developed and later perfected a system of packing fresh food into waxed cardboard boxes and flash-freezing under high pressure. And by 1927, his company General Seafoods was applying the technology to preserve beef, poultry, fruit, and vegetables. 

 

 

Two years later, The Goldman-Sachs Trading Corporation and the Postum Company (later the General Foods Corporation) bought Clarence Birdseye’s patents and trademarks in 1929 for $22 million. The first quick-frozen vegetables, fruits, seafoods, and meat were sold to the public for the first time in 1930 in Springfield, Massachusetts, under the trade name Birds Eye Frosted Foods®.

 

These frozen products were initially only available at 18 stores as a way to gauge whether consumers would take to what was then a novel approach to selling food. Grocery shoppers could choose from a fairly wide selection that included frozen meat, blue point oysters, fish fillets, spinach, peas, various fruits and berries. The products were a hit and with the company continued to expand, with frozen food products transported by refrigerated boxcars to distant stores. Today commercially frozen foods are a multi-billion dollar industry and "Birds Eye," a top frozen-food brand, is widely sold just about everywhere.    

 

 

Birdseye served as consultant to General Foods up until 1938 and eventually turned his attention to other interests and invented an infrared heat lamp, a spotlight for store window displays, a harpoon for marking whales. He would also establish companies to market his products. By the time of his sudden passing in 1956 he had about 300 patents to his name.