The year 2000 marks the start of a new century, the beginning of a new millennium and the 70th anniversary of the frozen foods category, an ingenious innovation that changed the direction of the grocery industry forever.
On March 6, 1930, a young field scientist named Clarence Birdseye introduced the first line of retail frozen foods to a test market of consumers in Springfield, Mass. Today, the frozen foods category has evolved into one of the most indispensable departments in supermarkets all over the world.
"Clarence Birdseye literally invented the process of quick freezing, which enabled frozen foods to retain their integrity of structure over time. Before that, people had to drip water over ice and chill food," said Donna Rippin, director of marketing for new products at Birdseye, a registered trademark of Agrilink Foods, Inc., the food processing and marketing cooperative based in Rochester, N.Y.
"Since then, there have been a lot of changes in frozen products. Frozen vegetables have evolved from plain peas and corn to fancy blends, foods with sauce, entrees and now center-plate meals like Chicken Voila," she added.
Despite its inaugural success in 1930, the frozen foods industry also endured a number of difficult times throughout its history before achieving its current position as a successful, established category. Ultimately, it was the introduction of orange juice concentrate that launched the growth of the industry.
"During World War II, women went to work and they started demanding foods with ease and speed of preparation. For the first time, convenience was an issue. But, the major socioeconomic changes that occurred not long after the war had a significant impact on the industry," said Al Rosenfeld, founder of Frozen Food Age magazine in New York.
"When the war was over, consumers completely rejected frozen foods because they weren't considered that good and they thought of them as products for emergency situations," Rosenfeld continued.
With the advent of orange juice concentrate in the 40s, frozen foods began to gain momentum and the demand for more high quality, convenient products pushed manufacturers to expand their frozen food lines.
"Frozen foods were an enormous advance in convenience -- one of the great developments of the century. But, one of the things that happens with major phenomena is that once they are established, people start to expect more from them," said Arnold Brown, futurist for Weiner Edrich Brown, the New York-based futurist consulting group, and author of the Insider's Guide to the Future. "This happened with frozen foods and consumers began expecting bigger and better products that were both convenient and tastier."
As health and nutrition also became a major concern for consumers, a new category of frozen foods was eventually developed to meet this new demand.
"Not long ago we forced ourselves to be even better from a product development standpoint and we started involving chefs in the process, having them suggest ingredients and spices to make our frozen products taste better," said Dean Hollis, president and COO for ConAgra, Inc., a diversified foods company based in Omaha, Neb. "But, at ConAgra, one of the most significant creations was developed in 1985 when our CEO at the time, Charles (Mike) Harper, had a heart attack. He challenged our product development team to create a line of foods that were health-conscious and, as a result, Healthy Choice was born. Later, in 1988, we introduced the first line of Healthy Choice frozen dinners."
Around the same time, other frozen products like Eggbeaters, the low-cholesterol, low-fat egg alternative, began popping up in the freezer section of supermarkets.
"Eggbeaters entered the frozen food market in 1972 as a healthy alternative to eggs," said Mike Shingler, brand manager for Eggbeaters, a trademark brand of Indianapolis, Ind.-based food manufacturer Beatrice Foods Company.
"Health was becoming a big issue when we first introduced the product, and today people not only choose to eat Eggbeaters because of cholesterol properties, but also for the protein content."
More recently, a new frozen food item -- the center-plate meal -- has shown tremendous growth in popularity and is helping to boost the overall market for complete, frozen entrees.
"A lot of center-plate items, like chicken kiev, chicken cordon bleu and entire ensembles like steak pies and skillet meals, are constantly being reinvented. They are also becoming more convenient and consumers are starting to load up on these products, buying a frozen meal for every night of the week," said Bernie Rogan, spokesman for Shaw's Supermarkets, Inc., the supermarket chain based in East Bridgewater, Mass.
The industry will unquestionably see more developments in center-plate products in the future, but quality and convenience are also expected to reach new heights. And, as consumers become more and more mobile, convenience foods are expected to become increasingly portable.
"Frozen prepared meals will continue to be the backbone of the category, but the meals will continue to taste even better and cooking preparation required will be less and less," said an official from the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Spartan Foods Inc.
"Because consumers are demanding convenient frozen foods, the other thing you will see more of are frozen handheld foods they can eat while on the road," said the official, who wished to remain anonymous.
Packaging and merchandising techniques have also gone through a series of changes during the years. As retail chains became more sophisticated, manufacturers and retailers began to realize the potential advantages of displaying frozen foods in a more appealing manner.
"Our pork sausage products were originally placed in a small, one-pound box and packed in cloth bags. Later, in 1959, we started packing them in the 12-ounce boxes that we still sell them in today," said Phil Kafarakis, vice president of sales and marketing for Jones Dairy Farm, a meat manufacturer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.
"The freezer case became more creative at that time -- more marketing and consumer-driven -- and it was crucial to have a brand with a logo that was big, evident and strategically placed on the latest, crisp packaging. Retailers wanted more facing so we developed each package so that when it was displayed, it created a large white billboard with our pork logo all over it," he said.
With the recent flurry of competition in the freezer case, presentation has also become more important than ever. As a result, manufacturers are turning from plain, understated packaging to more visually stunning, informational designs.
"Space is at a premium in the freezer case and it's imperative that our products' packaging stand out in the crowd. Rich, vibrant colors are standard on our current packaging, which is quite a change from the tan color of our original packages," said Angela Ritchie, marketing manager for Wampler Foods, Inc., the frozen turkey patties manufacturer based in Broadway, Va.
"We see consumers wanting both great tasting and healthy foods, so we emphasize flavor and the health aspect right on the package," she added.
Despite such ingenious innovations in product development and packaging creations, some feel that the frozen foods department could become more convenient and "user-friendly" in the future; a responsibility that ultimately falls on the retailer.
"We sent a group of consumers into stores for a research project to see if they could put together meals created only with frozen food products and we found that it's difficult for shoppers to find variety with the way packages were stacked in the freezers," said Sue Ellen Bohac, president of the Chicago-based Alcott Group marketing and research company. "Consumers don't really want to take the time to flip up each package in the freezer case to see if it's anything new or different so they tend to stick to the same things. Retailers do a decent job with frozen meals by keeping them upright in cardboard boxes, but other items like vegetables are still stacked on top of each other, making them harder to see. Retailers need to use more signage placed on freezer doors and at the ends of aisles to draw attention to the variety so the shopper doesn't have to lean into the freezer to see what's available," she added.
Innovations in transportation methods have also been crucial to the evolution of the industry. As the distance between manufacturers and retailers augmented, methods of frozen foods transportation were modernized to accommodate the increasingly lengthy trips.
"The monitoring of frozen foods has increased very rapidly over the past ten years. As the most vulnerable time for frozen foods is when they are in transit and the temperature is most likely to fluctuate, more and more people have become interested in recorders that monitor frozen commodities," said Dr. James L. Cox, CEO of Cox Technologies, Inc., a temperature and food product monitoring company from Belmont, N. C.
"One of the main changes that has driven this interest in frozen foods monitoring is the transition from a more simple transportation network to a multitiered distribution network. Instead of shipping from the manufacturer to the retailer, there are now main warehouses and sub warehouses and each time the product is transferred, there is a possibility of the food's temperature rising too high," he added.
Today, developers are concerned with preserving the integrity of frozen foods for longer periods of time during transportation.
''Traditionally, the frozen foods industry used dry ice to keep products frozen during shipping, but, since the dry ice dropped the product's temperature so low, it affected the quality of the food," said Greg Johnson, senior logistics manager of product development for DHL, Inc., a Redwood City, Calif.-based express worldwide transportation provider.
"We came up with a product -- the thermo box -- that helps maintain a food's temperature so it looks, feels and tastes exactly the way the manufacturer intended it to, no matter how far it has to be shipped." The future of this continually evolving category will undoubtedly reveal a number of new breakthroughs in frozen food innovations.
"The driving factor for future developments in frozen foods will always remain the same. It will always go back to the consumer's demand for quality, convenience and price," said Hollis.