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Audio Tour Stop #6: Packaging and Processing Matters — The Father of Frozen Food

Records of preserving food by freezing dates back to 1000 B.C. Until the 1920s though frozen food that wasn’t mushy remained local fare. That’s when Clarence Birdseye figured out the logistics for packaging, transporting and selling frozen food that tested fresh.

While on an expedition to Labrador and contact with Inuits, Birdseye was introduced to frozen fish that tasted freshly caught. Inuit fishermen’s catch would freeze instantly in the frigid temperatures and retained its taste and texture even after thawing. Later while working for the U.S. Fisheries Association, Birdseye realized that expanding the fish market required packaging and transporting it over long distances and selling it to individual customers with its freshness intact.

He left the Fisheries Association in 1922 and started working on a way to apply what he learned in Labrador. The key was to freeze individual portions of fresh food fast at low temperatures to prevent large ice crystals from damaging cells. He also wanted to eliminate air pockets that could harbor bacteria and lead to decomposition. His most successful methods for quick freezing required packaging food first. Waterproof packages of food were held under pressure between two hollow metal plates chilled to -25°F. A two-inch-thick package of fish could be frozen to 0°F in 90 minutes, while fruits and vegetables took about 30 minutes. Birdseye’s quick-freezing process created 168 patents related to packaging materials, processing and machines. He created a new industry and changed the way people ate.