Frozen food wasn’t always popular, but it has become an almost $300 billion industry


Following is a transcript of the video.

Clancy Morgan: If you’re like me, your freezer is packed full of frozen food that came from a giant frozen section from a factory that freezes millions of pounds of food every year. It’s an enormous operation, but all of that actually started with this, or, more specifically, this.

The story behind this logo is key to understanding how one idea completely changed how we eat and cook and along the way created an almost $US300 ($AU410) billion industry.

To understand how we got this, we have to go back to the early 20th century. Before frozen foods, diets in the US looked a lot like this. They were very meat and potatoes, and I know this kid looks super excited, but it was often really bland.

To get meat, people would go to a quaint butcher shop, like this one from 1910. And they’d go to a small, often mom-and-pop grocery store, like this one. You’d actually bring a list, and a worker would pick out your items for you. I’m not sure why this lady looks so displeased with that artichoke, though. But anyway, people could keep food cold, but not really frozen.

Amy Bentley: You had an icebox, but iceboxes were minimally functional. They tended to be smelly. They could create mold.

Clancy: Frozen food at the time actually had a really bad reputation.

Clip: Is that right?

Clancy: Because it was frozen at temperatures that weren’t actually that cold, it sometimes took a day or longer to freeze. This formed large ice crystals, which ruined the taste and texture. Basically, the quality was terrible. But soon that would all change, thanks to this guy. Clarence Birdseye. He invented what we think of as frozen food, and it totally changed the way we eat. I find Clarence Birdseye fascinating.

He was always inventing things, and he actually has over 100 patents. Here’s a photo I printed out of him working on a food dehydrator. And he had a real, like, 20th-century vibe. The editors of his college yearbook actually wrote this quote next to his photo. I don’t even know how to say this. “I ain’t afeer’d o’bugs, or toads, or worms, or snakes, or mice, or anything.” Interestingly, he never actually graduated from college.

Birdseye spent several years working in Labrador in Northern Canada, where he observed Inuit fishermen freezing fish in the frigid outdoors. The fish froze so quickly they actually retained their taste and texture. So like any good inventor, Birdseye engineered a machine that would replicate this process, quickly freezing small quantities of food between two super-cold metal plates. The plates were later swapped for belts, which was more efficient. The machine used temperatures as cold as 50 degrees below zero, and the food was prepackaged in insulated containers. Birdseye called his product “frosted food” to differentiate it from low-quality frozen food.

Now, obviously Birdseye didn’t invent the concept of frozen food, but he did figure out a way to mechanize its production, and it worked great. In 1932, The New York Times described the process as a scientific miracle, having food ready without any “laborious preparation.”

Clip: ♪ Birds Eye peas [pop] ♪ ♪ Sweet as the moment [pop] ♪ ♪ Sweet as the moment when the pod went pop [pop] ♪

Clancy: But there was just one problem. Pretty much no one had a freezer. And I mean no one. When some families did start to get electric refrigerators around the 1930s, it was a really new concept.

Clip: Sliding shelves, too. A marvelous convenience.

Clancy: But it wasn’t just homes. Retailers didn’t have freezers that could keep frozen food from thawing, reportedly failing to keep temperatures “much under 40 degrees Fahrenheit.” And retailers were also skeptical about this new product. One industry analysis wrote that “customers not only did not demand quick-frozen foods but probably had never heard of them.”

Changing how millions of people eat was a daunting task, and Birdseye’s company was running out of money. So in 1929, Birdseye sold his patents and company to Postum for $US23.5 ($AU32) million, or over $US350 ($AU479) million today. Now, all of that money didn’t go directly to Clarence Birdseye, but he did make around a million dollars from it. [pop] And he must have really liked frozen foods, because he stayed on at the company as a consultant.

Birdseye needed to figure out how to sell frozen food, but he also literally needed to figure out how to sell it. Distribution was cited as “the quick-frozen-food industry’s most serious problem.” So the most serious solution? The company would not only make the food, but also the freezers and the trucks, then lease hundreds of them to retailers as a proof of concept for frozen food. And it worked. It demonstrated that it could be a popular product. By the end of 1937, 2,000 stores carried Birds Eye frozen food.

To market frozen food, Birds Eye focused on its freshness and convenience, advertising peas “as gloriously green as any you will see next summer.”

Clip: Yes, Birds Eye peas are as sweet as that because they are freshest picked, freshest frozen.

Clancy: And this entire cookbook was written just to advertise all the ways you can use frozen food. And there’s some real gems in here. Like, there’s one for French fried asparagus. And this thing called a jellied salmon loaf. But there still wasn’t a big need that frozen foods filled.

In 1937, it was estimated that only around 23% of homes had electric refrigerators. And according to American Heritage, “In 1945 Americans still bought less than two pounds of frozen food apiece.” For context, I have, like, 15 pounds (7kg) right now. But Clarence believed in frozen food. That same year he told The Washington Post, “I believe we’ll see a phenomenal increase in the demands for both home and commercial use.” And he was right.

Clip: And so they joined the stream of family life in the suburbs.

Bentley: The 1950s and the ’60s is called “the golden age of food processing.” Consumers who had been deprived of consumer goods through the 1930s and the ’40s, with the war and food rationing, all of a sudden have disposable income. The country is very wealthy. And all of these products are flooding the market.

Clip: Miles of checkout counters and endless rows of carts.

Clancy: In less than a decade, frozen-food sales grew from $US496 ($AU678) million to almost $US2 ($AU3) billion. It was the fastest-growing segment of the food industry, according to a 2003 study. During that time, exciting new products like frozen OJ, TV dinners, and even frozen pizza were introduced. And this is when we see the rise of those household-name brands, like Eggo, Hungry-Man, or Ellio’s.

Clip: And your big Birds Eye buy this week is Birds Eye orange juice.

Clancy: Birds Eye itself reportedly offered over 100 different items. You can actually see the Birds Eye logo here in a freezer ad from 1948. And grocery stores went from having a couple of hundred products to a few thousand. This A&P ad from 1950 boasts over 2,400 items.

But possibly the biggest shift was when families started to move to the suburbs. Now you could drive to the supermarket, buy a ton of food, and store it all in your refrigerator, which actually had a freezer built in now.

Clip: A completely separate food freezer that holds 84 pounds (38kg) of frozen foods. There’s simply nothing like it.

Clancy: Convenience played a bigger role in American homes, and companies capitalized on it. Birds Eye advertised its frozen spinach as the “work-free-est, farm-freshest.”

Bentley: And so the cuisine and the culture shifts somewhat, and the technology gets better, and the two converge to create this moment where frozen food is seen as no longer, like, low class or a compromise.

Clancy: In 1955, The New York Times wrote, “frozen foods are no longer a specialty item but an integral part of the grocery business.” And about a decade later, the microwave made things even more convenient. What I can’t get over is the brilliance and the absurdity of Birdseye’s invention was that it worked really well, but it was engineered way before retailers or consumers were ready for it, or even wanted it. It took two decades and a world war to catch on. But today, frozen foods are cemented into American society.

Bentley: And it’s emblematic of all of these values that we have always had about food: shelf stable, predictable, relatively low cost, much of it. We want fresh, local, seasonal food. We value that, but we also value frozen food.

Clancy: A lot has changed since the days of the icebox. But you can thank Clarence Birdseye, at least in part, for your Kid Cuisine and your DiGiorno. That was maybe a little too much struggle. I’ll do a little in between.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in October 2020.