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Clarence Birdseye: the inventor of frozen food

The American biologist Clarence Birdseye invented the first flash freezing facility in the 1920s, a huge milestone in the history of frozen food. His work revolutionised the American food industry and subsequently the global food industry. Clarence Birdseye was born in New York on 9 December 1886, 130 years ago. A portrait of the great inventor.

Clarence Birdseye frozen food
Would you have started a food revolution looking at this? Photo: © trofimov_pavel - Fotolia.com

1912 – the freezing cold on the Labrador Peninsula in Canada is part of everyday life. The wind whips across the face; the smallest drop of water freezes within seconds. Clarence Birdseye would spend hours on a dog sled enjoying what others would have found uncomfortable. The adventurer was not much bothered by the cold but it did make it difficult for him to find food.

Some days it was easy to catch fish, on other days he went empty-handed. A group of Inuit lived just a few meters away. They had more luck catching fish. The men carried several fish to the igloos. However, instead of eating the fish immediately, they would freeze it. Wouldn't the fish become inedible? Apparently the small ice crystals preserve the cell walls of the animals which contain taste, texture, and colour, until thawed. A discovery that would change his life forever.

Clarence Birdseye did not leave much information about himself. Mark Kurlansky starts his biography "Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man" with the sentence, "the only book Birdseye has left us is a small volume on gardening, which was mostly written by his wife." Articles which the journalists have written about him were too imprecise and not sufficiently specific.

Innate intelligence and indomitable pioneering spirit

What we do know for certain is that Clarence Birdseye was born in Brooklyn on 9 December 1886. Even as a child he was interested in botany and zoology. At the age of ten, he hunted muskrats and taught himself how to prepare animals. His passion accompanied him all the way to college. He enrolled at Amherst College. He wanted to become a biologist. However, college studies were too expensive. Birdseye was forced to drop out of college. The Washington Post compared Birdseye to innovators like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs, inventors like him who did not have a college degree. He had to depend on his innate intelligence and his indomitable pioneering spirit as he began his work for the US Biological Survey.

Mark Kurlansky, his biographer, notes, "Birdseye loved food, loved to cook, and wrote, thought, and talked about eating much more than most people. He was what would be called today a foodie." He preferred the global agricultural industry to regional farms when it came to his choice of food products. His food taste was unusually exotic in an age when canned food was particularly popular. He was curious about how an animal would taste and how to cook it best.

Inspired by the Inuit: the first flash freezing facility

According to the New York Times, the adventurer also lived in Montana for a while. He studied ticks in order to better understand the Rocky Mountain spotted fever. He photographed animals, collected around 4,500 ticks, and made an important finding: both small and large animals can be tick carriers. If his life had taken a different turn, he would have probably become famous for the results of this research. However, he then started his journey to Labrador.

According to Kurlansky, Birdseye's experience on the Canadian peninsula changed his life. Inspired by the Inuit on his five-year research expedition in the Arctic, he developed the first shock freezing facility for fish, fruits, and vegetables. He founded General Seafood Corporation with the support of investors. Postum Corporation bought the company five years later in 1929. General Foods Corporation was established. Initially, Birdseye was employed by General Foods as a consultant. He then became the President of Birds Eye Frosted Foods from 1930 to 1934 and Birdseye Electric Company from 1935 to 1938.

Frozen food makes it possible to consume non-season fruit at any time. Photo: © Thomas Teufel - Fotolia.com

Revolutionising the global food industry

The entrepreneur was thinking globally at an early stage: how should frozen food be packaged so it can last as long as possible? In what quantity? Plastic was yet to become standard packaging material. In the 1940s, his company rented refrigerated wagons for the transportation of frozen food thus enabling nationwide distribution, a decisive step in changing the eating habits of Americans. Frozen food makes it possible to consume non-season fruit and vegetables at any time, even fish, without having to live near the sea.

Washington Post has called Birdseye a man full of vision, curiosity, and tenacity. He was small, bald, and full of energy. His enthusiasm was so contagious that all the children in every neighbourhood he lived in would come up to him with rodents, frogs, and insects. He would share his interest in biology with them. As the New York Times has noted, his enthusiasm for nature was so great that Birdseye wrote more about a fox cub in his diary than his first son Kellogg, who was born in 1916.

"He was a wonder then, and he would be a wonder today."

Kurlansky notes that Birdseye was a naturalist but he was not an environmentalist. He did not consider the ramifications of urbanisation, industrialisation, and the agricultural industry. He was primarily interested in solving problems. Kurlansky writes, "It seems certain that were he alive today, he would see things very differently - and would turn his inventive mind to solving today's problems. […] He was a wonder then, and he would be a wonder today."

"To be perfectly honest, I am best described as just a guy with a large bump of curiosity and a gambling instinct," Birdseye told the American Magazine in February 1951. In his book, Kurlansky points to the discrepancy between Birdseye's self-image and his external image. The inventor saw himself as an American full of courage, little intellect, and as a pioneer. According to the author, the first and the last of these characteristics are true to a great extent, the second is not. This is illustrated by his estimated 300 patent rights, not only in the field of frozen food, but also for his experiments with incandescent lamps, harpoons, and paper making.

Clarence Birdseye died on 7 October 1956 in New York City. There have been a lot of speculations about the cause of Birdseye's death. However, one thing is certain: Birdseye revolutionised the global food market with his inventiveness and intellect, even to this day.

Headerphoto: © trofimov_pavel - Fotolia.com

The German Frozen Food Institute is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. To commemorate this occasion, the institute has published 60 facts on the achievements of the institute and the development of the industry on its website.

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