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A convenient setting for the captain’s table

The recent food scare has made many of us much more aware of what we eat. When the Food Safety Authority of Ireland announced last January it found traces of horse DNA in beef products, it was treated in some quarters as another Irish joke.


Horse meat is not generally eaten in Ireland but is commonly used in other countries such as France, Italy and China. Far from a joke, it showed that the Irish authorities were much more alert than those elsewhere and were leaders in the field.

Some weeks later, British authorities published similar results and soon more and more countries found contaminated products in their food chains. What remains to be seen is whether this was accidental or deliberate mislabelling of cheaper meat as beef.

Its widespread effect goes to show how reliant most households are on what are known as frozen convenience foods. We are familiar with Captain Birdseye as an advertising slogan but when we use frozen food products, we can thank a very real person named Clarence Birdseye.

Clarence was born in New York and dropped out of college to work for the United States Department of Agriculture. In this role, he was sent to Labrador where he encountered the local Inuit or Eskimos. He became fascinated by their methods of preserving the food they caught. They showed him how they froze their fish. He realised that when thawed again, it still tasted fresh and far superior to the frozen food that he had been used to in New York. He learned that the conventional way of freezing was slow, allowing ice crystals to form in the food that gave it a damaged appearance when thawed.  He learned the Eskimos were freezing their fish under the ice on the frozen sea where, in temperatures of nearly -50ºC, it was freezing instantly and thus escaping damage from ice crystals. He immediately realised that if he could do similar freezing commercially, the potential was enormous.

In 1922, he conducted experiments and set up his own company, Birdseye Seafoods, which packed fresh food into waxed cardboard boxes and froze them instantly.

However, two years later, his company went bust because of a lack of public interest in his product. Undaunted, he started again, refined his process and obtained patents for his system. He was constantly improving and moved from fish to also include meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables.

To show that he was also a shrewd businessman, he then sold his patents and trademark to what would later become the General Foods Corporation for $22 million – worth over $300m in today’s values.

Birdseye continued to work for the company developing new technologies and marketing his own products. He tested refrigerated display units and refrigerated train carriages and  also invented an infrared heat lamp and a spotlight for shop window displays.

The new frozen food company concentrated their initial sales in Massachusetts to test consumer reaction. Their first lines featured 26 items all under the Birdseye name and they began sales in 18 retail outlets around Springfield. Consumers liked them and this is considered the start of  frozen foods as we know them.

Those first Birdseye products went on sale in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 6, 1930 – 83 years ago this week.

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