Frozen Foods Explode (so to speak)
In the 1950s, a food technology that had been around for centuries was finally successfully mechanized, and that changed the way the world eats and the way farmers farm. Frozen foods exploded – in a good sense.
At some point before history was recorded, human beings discovered that ice preserved food for later consumption. There is evidence that the Chinese were storing winter ice for summer consumption as long ago as 10,000 years. As late as the 1920s and 30s, rural residents were still using a form of icehouse technology to preserve their food.
Two thousand years ago, the ancestors of the Inca in the Andean mountains figured out how to freeze dry potatoes. They would freeze them overnight, then trample them to squeeze out left over moisture, then dry them in the sun. Over several days, the potatoes would be in a form that would preserve the nutritional value – if not the aesthetic appeal – of the original tuber.
Natural ice remained the main form of refrigeration until late in the 19th century. In the early 1800s, Boston ship owners towed enormous blocks of Arctic ice all over the Atlantic. In 1851, railroads first began putting blocks of ice in insulated rail cars to transport butter from Ogdensburg, New York, to Boston.
Finally, in 1870, the Australians figured out a way to make “mechanical ice.” Inventers exploited the laws of thermodynamics. They used a compressor to force one of several gases – ammonia at first and later Freon that’s safer – through a heat exchanger coil. The hot, compressed gas gives up some of its heat as it moves through the condenser. Then the gas is released quickly into a low-pressure evaporator coil. In this low-pressure environment, the gas becomes liquid and becomes cold. Air is blown over the evaporator coils and then into the now refrigerated compartment.
Initially the mechanical refrigerator was invented to make Australian beer even in hot weather. But Australian cattlemen were quick to realize that, if they could put this new invention on a ship, they could ship beef to England. In 1880, Australian beef and mutton was shipped, frozen, to England.
While the meat was still palatable, there was some deterioration. The problem was that in the process of slowly freezing the meat, ice crystals formed within the cells of the meat. The ice expanded and the cells burst, and that made the meat a little less flavorful. The Americans realized that they could chill beef – not quite freeze it – and it would taste better after the shorter trip to England across the Atlantic than from Australia.
Gradually, refrigeration technology filtered down through commercial applications, like refrigerated trucks, to the home and the farm. Home freezers created a new branch of the food industry and changed farming.
The modern frozen food industry actually began with the Inuit indigenous tribes in Canada. In 1912, a biology student from Amherst College named Clarence Birdseye ran out of money and came to Labrador to trap and trade furs. He became fascinated with how the Inuit would quickly freeze fish or caribou meat. The meat looked and tasted fresh even months later. Quick freezing did not allow the ice crystals to form and destroy the food. By this time, Birdseye had married and started a family. He experimented with quick-freezing other foods, including fruits and vegetables to feed his growing family.
He returned to the states in 1917 and began inventing mechanical freezers capable of quick freezing food. Birdseye methodically kept inventing better freezers and gradually built a business selling frozen fish from Gloucester, Massachusetts. In 1929, his business was sold and became General Foods. Clarence Birdseye remained with the company as director of research, and his division continued to invent. Birdseye was responsible for several key innovations that made the frozen food industry possible –
- Quick freezing techniques that reduced the damage that freezing water crystals caused.
- Blanching was a technique developed by General Foods to boil the food for a few minutes before quick freezing.
- Cellophane, the first transparent material for food packaging that allowed the consumer to see the quality of the product.
- The technique of freezing the product in the package it was to be sold in.
- Convenient size packages that could be prepared with a minimum of effort.
But, it took decades – and development of freezer technology – for Birdseye to convince his frozen foods were better than the older brands.
During the Depression, few grocery stores could afford buying freezers for a market that wasn’t established, yet, so Birdseye leased inexpensive freezer cases to them. In 1944, he leased the first insulated railroad cars so that he could ship his products nationwide. But, few consumers had the freezers large enough of efficient enough to take advantage of the products.
World War II gave a boost to the frozen food industry because tin was being rationed and used for munitions. Canned foods were rationed to free tin for war, and frozen foods were abundant and cheap.
Finally, after World War II, refrigerator technology had come far enough to be affordable for the average family, and families were finally able to afford the appliances. By 1953, 33 million families owned a refrigerator, and the manufacturers were gradually increasing the size of the freezer compartments in them. In addition, families were looking for convenience at dinnertime.
Enter the TV Dinner.
Swanson Foods was a large, nationally recognized producer of canned and frozen poultry. In 1954, the company adapted some of Birdseye’s freezing techniques, a segmented aluminum tray — that was being used for airline food — turkey, potatoes, vegetables, a clever name and a huge advertising budget to create the first “TV Dinner.” It was a product whose time had come.
Swanson’s at first ordered the production of 5,000 turkey dinners and started advertising and selling. Within a year, they had sold 13 million. American consumers couldn’t resist the combination of a trusted brand name, a single-serving package and the convenience — the TV dinner could ready after “only” 25 minutes in a 425° oven, plus it fit neatly on the new “TV trays.”
Competitors were quick to borrow the ideas of both Birdseye and Swanson.
By 1959, Americans were spending $2.7 billion annually on frozen foods. Half-a-billion of that was spent on ready-prepared meals like the TV Dinner.
For Don Freeman (left), the TV Dinner was a great innovation. “It was something that was just wonderful to be able to come home and pop them in [the oven] and sit down and have dinner.”
Paul Underwood (right) says that his family’s busy lifestyle made TV dinners attractive – even if it still took 30 minutes to heat them in the oven. “My Mom was a schoolteacher. Dad, when he wasn’t farming, drove truck,” Paul says. “And as a kid we couldn’t wait for the TV dinners. We thought that was the neatest thing.”
Today, the frozen food industry is over $67 billion annually, with $26.6 billion of that sold to consumers for home consumption. The remaining $40 billion in frozen food sales come through restaurants, cafeterias, hospitals and schools, and that represents a third of the total foodservice sales.
The size of the frozen food market has forced changes on farms. For instance, much of the vegetable industry is now highly integrated. Peas are grown in Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Farmers there contract with the food processors who control the entire production cycle — from the varieties of peas grown (those that stand up to the freezing process), to the cultivation practices, down to the timing of the harvest so that the processing plant is not overwhelmed. Similar vertical integration contracts are in place for other major commodities.