Clarence Birdseye’s Frozen Food Process Innovated an Industry

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.

Patent #1,773,079 issued to Clarence Birdseye for the production of quick-frozen fish.

Patent #1,773,079 issued to Clarence Birdseye for the production of quick-frozen fish.

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.

About Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra writes about science, technology, and business for general and specialty news outlets in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, including coverage of the "farm to fork" movement and food safety. She’s been involved in several media startups, and had articles published by The Boston Globe, Reuters, Science magazine, and others. She holds an MS in science journalism from Boston University and a BS in medical writing from University of Pittsburgh. She won numerous journalism fellowships and awards, including the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lori enjoys bicycling, snowshoeing, gardening, and traveling. She lives in the western mountains of Maine.

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