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Not “Frozen”: Researching the Frozen Dinner Industry

This post was written by our new reference librarian in Business Angel Vu. She will eventually become a blogger here at Inside Adams so look for more posts in the future.

During winter, when we are surrounded by an abundance of delicious homemade goodies, the history of frozen dinners and the frozen food industry typically does not come to mind.


Surprised! c1934 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b41630

The series, Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress, attempted to unravel the disputed history of frozen foods with “Who Invented Frozen Food” and the pre-packaged “TV dinner” with “Who Invented the Frozen Dinner.”  Clarence Birdseye developed methods for fast freezing foods and ended up with over 150 patents. However, the frozen dinner’s initial success (i) in the mainstream consumer market, has been widely attributed to Swanson (ii). In a nutshell, Gerry Thomas, Swanson’s marketing and sales executive in the mid-1900s, was faced with a surplus of 260 tons of unsold frozen Thanksgiving turkeys. Inspired by prepared airline meals, Thomas and Swanson created meals with the surplus turkeys using aluminum trays (iii).   After a massive advertising campaign, the frozen dinners proved popular with the general public. Within a year (1953-1954), Swanson sold 10 million turkey dinners at $0.98 apiece, making a nice profit (iv).

The frozen food sector has undergone tremendous change (v) since Clarence Birdseye’s innovations and the turkey dinner’s initial success. In North America, the number of customers purchasing frozen meals has increased, but market growth has slowed. The industry’s current struggles (vi) are driven primarily by consumers’ evolving demands (vii), some of which include greater attention to taste and quality. If you want to know more, the following are resources that can help start your own research:

Bridgeton, New Jersey. Seabrook Farm. Frozen food coming out of the quick freezer. FSA/OWI Collection, June 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c27106

Bridgeton, New Jersey. Seabrook Farm. Frozen food coming out of the quick freezer. FSA/OWI Collection, June 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c27106

Articles in sources like Frosted Food Field are a great place to find information on an industry’s issues, trends, or current events. Additionally, professional industry analyses and forecast reports published by reputable firms are available through subscription databases. Many databases include the option to search by NAICS or SIC codes which enable researchers to look at industry statistics and find competitors. In the case of frozen foods, the NAICS code, 31141 for “Frozen food manufacturing,” or the SIC code, 5142 for “Packaged frozen food,” could be used in full-text databases and other sources such as Census.gov.

But don’t rule out print sources—particularly since not everything is online. For historical and current print publications on the frozen food industry, search the Library of Congress catalog using the following LC Subject Headings:

Frozen foods industry–United States–History
Frozen foods industry–United States–Directories
Frozen foods industry–United States–Statistics
Frozen foods–Marketing–Statistics–Periodicals
Frozen foods–United States–Statistics

Finally, consider trade organizations. Trade organizations and associations are a great resource for obtaining more information on the finer details of the particular business.

For more details and strategies, the Business Reference Section has compiled some helpful research guides as a starting point for industry research:

Guide to Industry Research
Industry Surveys
Market Segmentation: A Guide to Sources of Information
Products and Manufacturers

Change in consumer behavior provides fertile grounds for innovation and expansion. Globally, Europe is the current market leader of the frozen food industry with over 35% market share in 2012. Europe’s frozen food market revenue from 2013 to 2019 is projected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 3.8% (viii). The fact that customers are still purchasing frozen meals, and international interest in frozen foods has increased, shows that the business has not “frozen” with time.

Happy New Year and good luck with your research!


i http://pabook2.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/Frozen.html
ii http://foodservice.pinnaclefoods.com/brand/swanson/
iii http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_741033
iv http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tray-bon-96872641/?no-ist
v http://www.ibisworld.com/industry/default.aspx?indid=236
vi http://www.nationaljournal.com/s/72534/is-frozen-food-industry-thawing-out
vii http://www.statista.com/topics/1339/frozen-foods-market/
viii PR Newswire (2014) “Frozen Food Market – Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends & Forecast 2013 – 2019.” Retrieved December 2015 from ProQuest: ABI Inform Complete database.

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