A chance discovery

If food is simply frozen without removing the solid water crystals, then storage, quality, and lifetime become an entirely different set of problems. Early polar explorers frequently found their food supplies in a frozen state, and they encountered many problems in being able to ingest and digest these foods, which often had reduced nutritional value. Yet the Eskimos had survived for centuries in a hostile environment, living off fresh food from the ocean or the land and preserving this food by drying or freezing and storing it for times of need.

An astute naturalist employed by the United States government was the first to take particular notice of how the Eskimos prepared their frozen fish. On duty in the Arctic Clarence Birdseye watched in fascination as the Arctic ice and the bitter Arctic wind froze the fresh fish almost instantly. More importantly, Birdseye found that when these frozen fish were later thawed, cooked, and eaten, their taste was remarkably similar to the original fresh food. Recognizing that this "flash" or practically instantaneous freezing had commercial potential, Birdseye left his government job and formed Birdseye Seafoods, Inc. in 1924. In 1930 he was awarded a United States patent for a "Method of Preparing Food Products" (#1,773,079), a system that packed fish, meat, and vegetables in waxed cartons that were then flash-frozen.

Even as Birdseye’s company worked to develop refrigerated display cases for grocery stores, it continued to experiment with a wide range of prepared foods, expanding from meat, fish, and vegetables to bread, poultry, and stews. Hampered by the infancy of the refrigeration industry and the lack of suitable freezers in both homes and stores, the lack of suitable facilities for transporting frozen commodities, and the Great Depression of the 1930s, this effort resulted in "little more than several patents, some technical papers, and stacks of laboratory notes." (1)

During World War II Birdseye and a number of other companies continued to produce frozen foods, largely because food rationing and a shortage of canned goods tempted consumers to try whatever was available. By the end of the war there were 45 companies in the field, and as price controls were gradually removed by the Office of Price Administration (OPA) beginning in May 1946, the number of frozen food producers almost doubled. The variety of products was truly amazing. In addition to the standard fare there were also more exotic entrees such as borscht, lobster Newburg, and pigs' knuckles.

"The initial reception was gratifying, but then came the moment of truth. Dozens of new packers had frozen anything that would freeze without any scientific experimentation to ascertain proper methods for freezing, without any regard for quality, without any notion of proper packaging, pricing, product size, or marketing. The result was a near disaster. As fresh and canned foods were gradually removed from OPA jurisdiction, the consumers stayed away from frozen prepared foods in droves." (1) As a result, between 1946 and 1947, the production of frozen foods dropped 87 percent in a single year!


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Early methods of food preservation | A chance discovery | Frozen food chemistry | U.S. Agriculture turns to science | Frozen food research begins at WRRC | Defining "Quality"Chemical reactions at low temperaturesChlorophyll as a benchmark | Major scientific results from the T-TT programSocietal impact of the T-TT program | Landmark designation | Further reading and acknowledgments

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