Capitalizing on winter frosts, consumers in cold climates have been freezing food naturally for countless centuries. The mechanical freezing of food dates to the 1860s, pioneered by Thomas Mort (1816–1878), who established the first commercial freezing works in Darling Harbor, Australia. In 1930, Brooklyn, N.Y., native Clarence Birdseye (1886–1956) patented his method to flash-freeze foods and deliver them to the public, an accomplishment considered to be one of the most important revolutions in the food industry.
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Fast forward to the present.
As of June 2019, U.S. retail frozen food sales totaled $55 billion for 52 consecutive weeks, according to Nielsen Retail Measurement Services (NRMS). Not surprisingly, ice cream was the most popular frozen food during that same time frame, per NRMS, with $6.7 billion in retail sales, followed by pizza ($4.8 billion), seafood ($4.8 billion), novelty ($4.6 billion), and complete meals ($4.5 billion). Following the top five are vegetables ($3.1 billion), cooked meat ($3.0 billion), fresh meat ($2.9 billion), appetizers ($2.1 billion), and potatoes ($1.8 billion). Categories rounding out the list are sandwiches ($1.7 billion), ice ($1.6 billion), breakfast sandwiches ($1.3 billion), main courses ($1.3 billion), fruit ($1.1 billion), and handheld entrées ($1.0 billion).
In 2019, in collaboration with the Food Marketing Institute, the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), based in Arlington, Va., released a research report, “The Power of Frozen in Retail,” that examined the consumption, purchase drivers, and use of frozen foods. These research findings, along with actual sales and consumption data, provide an overview of frozen food that equips frozen food manufacturers and their retail partners with opportunities for continued growth, according to Donna Garren, PhD, AFFI’s executive vice president of science and policy.
Founded in 1942, AFFI is a national trade association dedicated to advancing the interests of all segments of the frozen food and beverage industry. Highlights from the report address the retail frozen landscape in 2018, specifically:
- Frozen foods generated $57 billion annually in retail.
- A total of 99.4 percent of households purchase at least some frozen foods.
- The top three categories for growth in sales were pizza (+$232 million), novelties (+$211 million) and dinners/entrees (+$206 million).
- The top three categories with the largest percent dollar growth include appetizers/snacks (5.8 percent), soups/sides (9.8 percent, and breakfast foods (5.7 percent).
Addressing Food Safety Challenges in Frozen Food Industry
Dr. Garren observes that, currently, Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) and enteric viruses are pathogens that challenge global regulatory agencies and food manufacturers alike. “We’re addressing issues in this area by continuing to produce resources related to control and prevention of Lm, as well as exploring ways to support the frozen fruit industry in control and prevention of enteric viruses,” she relates.
To that end, in 2017, AFFI embarked on a strategic plan that prioritized the advancement of food safety within the frozen food industry supply chain, Dr. Garren says. “This was shortly after an Lm recall for frozen vegetables,” she notes. “We knew then that AFFI could be instrumental to our members and the collective frozen food industry in developing the science and best practices to ensure that frozen foods and beverages are safe.”
For this effort, Dr. Garren says, resources were developed with the support of more than 75 food safety experts representing the frozen food industry. All of this information is available for free on AFFI’s online resource, Food Safety Zone. “This website was launched in 2019 to provide frozen food and beverage manufacturers with best food safety practices aimed at Lm control and prevention in the areas of sanitation controls, hygienic design, environmental monitoring, process validation, hygienic zoning, and freezer management,” Dr. Garren relates.
Since 2017, AFFI has funded several research programs to build the body of scientific information around Lm and the public health impact of listeriosis. “Scientists at the University of Georgia [UGA], Cornell University, and the University of Minnesota are conducting these research projects,” Dr. Garren says.