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Clarence Birdseye's Frozen Food Process Innovated an Industry
by Lori Valigra
Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956) became a household name in the 1940s when his quick-freezing process—inspired by his experiences as a fur trader in northern Canada—allowed for national distribution of food and sparked a multibillion-dollar industry. He also devised a new method for dehydrating food.
Described as “a man of vision, curiosity and persistence” on the Birds Eye company website, Birdseye observed Eskimos in the Arctic using ice, wind, and temperature to freeze fresh-caught fish almost instantly, retaining its freshness. His application of flash freezing to vegetables ended up revolutionizing the frozen food industry.
During flash freezing, vegetables are frozen so quickly that only small ice crystals can form. Because the cell walls of the vegetables are not damaged during the process, their texture and color are preserved.
When he returned from the Arctic, Birdseye formed the General Seafood Corporation with three wealthy partners who supported his process. In 1926, Birdseye announced his “quick-freeze machine.” He then focused on selling frozen food and developed freezer display cases for grocers. By 1944, his company was leasing refrigerated boxcars to transport frozen foods across the nation.
Frozen Food via Fur Trade
Birdseye, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 9, 1886, was living in Gloucester, Mass., when he took his first fur-trapping cruise to Labrador in 1912. Inspired by what he saw there, he returned home and, in 1924, devised a machine to reproduce the Arctic cold. Initially, he could only spring for $7 worth of equipment, which included an electric fan, ice, and salt. But, in 1925, with financing from his three partners, General Seafood started marketing quick-frozen fish fillets. Four years later, the Postum Company Inc. and Goldman Sachs Trading Corp. bought the rights to Birdseye’s process for more than $22 million. In 1929, Postum bought out Goldman Sachs’ rights and changed its name to General Foods Corp., of which Birdseye’s company became a division.
While Birdseye’s name is typically synonymous with frozen food, he didn’t actually invent quick freezing, and his wasn’t the first company to sell it. What was unique was his method, which involved freezing food extremely rapidly and putting it into packages pressed between refrigerated metal plates.
A June 20, 1954, New York Times article on Birdseye indicated how extensively his discovery had ignited an industry, with 1,400 frozen food companies already in the field that year. “It was said authoritatively recently that this year they will freeze 4,000,000,000 pounds of food,” the Times wrote. This swarm of activity was driven by the government, which was buying frozen food for the armed forces. There was also a boom in food processors, many of whom didn’t meet quality standards and quickly fell by the wayside, leaving behind a vital frozen food industry that continues to grow.
When General Seafood came out with its frozen food in the 1920s, the company faced significant challenges: the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression that lasted into the early 1930s; public aversion to cold storage food, which was considered to be of inferior quality; competition with established canned and fresh food; and an almost complete lack of cars, trucks, and grocery freezers to transport and store the frozen foods.
But Birdseye the businessman noted that the public would gladly pay for frozen foods that tasted fresh, if he could deliver them. He invented a system that packed dressed fish, meat, and vegetables into waxed-cardboard cartons that were flash frozen under high pressure (patent #1,773,079; 1930). He also tested refrigerated grocery display cases in 1930 and entered a joint venture to manufacture them in 1934, the same year his company began leasing refrigerated boxcars to transport the frozen foods by rail. The first results of his effort—quick-frozen vegetables, fruits, seafood, and meat—were sold to the public for the first time in 1930 in Springfield, Mass., under the name Birds Eye Frosted Foods.
An Urgent Need for Fresh Food
Birdseye was the son of Clarence Frank Birdseye, a lawyer, and Ada Underwood Birdseye. He attended high school in Montclair, N.J., where “his lifelong interest in food came to light when he voluntarily attended the school’s cooking class,” according to his Oct. 9, 1956, obituary in The New York Times.
He began attending Amherst College in 1910 and majored in biology. But he left school to work as a naturalist for the U.S. Biological Survey (the college awarded him an honorary degree in 1941). In 1912, he was posted to Labrador as a fur trader. There, he observed native ways firsthand. Not only did the combination of ice, wind, and temperature freeze just-caught fish straight through almost instantly, but even more importantly, he found that when the fish were cooked, their taste and texture were scarcely different than fish eaten fresh.
Birdseye tested refrigerated grocery display cases in 1930. The first results of his effort—quick-frozen vegetables, fruits, seafood, and meat—were sold to the public for the first time that year in Springfield, Mass., under the name Birds Eye Frosted Foods.
He returned home and married Eleanor Gannett of Washington in 1915. A year later, he moved back to Labrador with his wife and first child. There, he advanced his observations and formed the basis for his later vocation. “‘Fresh food was a very urgent problem in Labrador,’” the Times article recalled him saying. “‘I found that foods frozen very quickly in the dead of winter kept their freshness as long as they were held at low temperature.’”
Dehydrating in Record Time
In 1949, Birdseye went on to develop the anhydrous method of taking water out of food, allowing it to be carried in cigarette-sized containers. In a Nov. 14, 1945, article, The New York Times quoted Birdseye telling guests at a luncheon demonstration at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn: “‘The reason anhydrous produce has the flavor, color and aroma of fresh, when served, is because of the speed by which the water is removed. It takes an average of ninety minutes to extract the moisture from our fruits and vegetables, whereas ordinary drying processes require eighteen hours.’”
In 1953, three years before his death at age 69, he started experiments in Peru on a continuous flow process that could convert crushed sugar cane into paper pulp. Clarence Birdseye held nearly 300 U.S. and foreign patents in his lifetime.
Valigra is a frequent writer for Food Quality. Reach her at email@example.com.