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Frozen Vegetables Are Good for You

Frozen foods were once pitched to women wearing pearls. So how did they become a mass market commodity? A Business History Review excerpt.

In the early 1950s, frozen-food industry leaders began to see the potential of mass marketing their product, rather than just serving a privileged market segment. This changing attitude was encouraged and documented in trade magazines of the period, particularly Quick Frozen Foods. These periodicals, whose readers were the executives of large and small companies that produced and distributed frozen foods, provide a fascinating overview of changing attitudes about frozen-food marketing. Executives both read and contributed articles to these journals, exchanging ideas about how to succeed in a volatile, relatively new industry. In the early 1950s, contributors to industry trade journals began to stress the idea that their product was a critical provider of the "conveniences and economies of modern-day living.30 Based upon advanced technology, these commentators argued, frozen-food production would bring abundance to all Americans by giving consumers quality and convenience at a low price.

1949 Advertisement

The leaders of the frozen-food industry did not immediately embrace the strategy of mass marketing low-priced goods. In fact, the industry leader, Birds Eye, preferred to continue advertising itself as a luxury-goods producer. As the first firm to try selling frozen foods nationally, General Foods had expended considerable money and effort since the 1930s to establish Birds Eye's reputation of high quality. A January 1949 advertisement in Life magazine depicted a well-off woman, wearing pearls, high heels, and an elegant satin outfit. Noting that Birds Eye frozen spinach was not only "grander than the grandest spinach," but also the "work-free-est," the ad showed the woman relaxing comfortably on a pillow, reading a novel. Another advertisement, appearing in the February 21, 1949 issue of Life, also showed a woman bedecked in jewels, this time using Birds Eye frozen lima beans to impress a smartly dressed beau at dinner. The text of the ad claimed that Birds Eye buyers could "watch [their] stock rise as the luscious buttery beauties disappear!" In 1949 at least, General Foods preferred to project its ideal consumer as coming from an upper-middle-class background, capable of appreciating Wall Street metaphors for the exchange of affection. 31

Frozen-food production would bring abundance to all Americans by giving consumers quality and convenience at a low price.
—Shane Hamilton

In the 1940s, the mass market still belonged to canned foods. Canning companies were more accustomed to selling to people on limited budgets, and most of them preferred at first to stay out of the frozen-food business. The Green Giant Company, for example, would later become one of General Foods' biggest competitors in frozen foods. Until 1962, however, the company remained dedicated to selling only canned foods. In its annual reports from 1945 to 1962, the company repeatedly explained to its shareholders that frozen foods could not deliver profits comparable to high-volume canned-food sales.32 Although Libby, McNeill, and Libby entered the frozen-food field sooner than Green Giant, its first forays were, as it told its stockholders in 1946, "conservative." Until the early 1950s, Libby preferred to maintain its high-volume, steady sales of canned vegetables and fruits.33 Stokely-Van Camp was thus the only major established canning company to enter the business enthusiastically before 1950.

Consumer demand for frozen foods was surging in the late 1940s, however, and the mass-marketing strategy became increasingly attractive. In the years immediately following the end of World War II, hundreds of entrepreneurs established small frozen-food packing operations, hoping to capitalize on the growth in demand demonstrated during wartime. These smaller operators proved willing—unlike major players such as Birds Eye and Stokelys--to sell "B grade" products. Lower quality standards brought lower prices and higher sales volumes. One of the most ingenious of these new packers, Quality Frozen, of San Francisco, sold its products in plain red-and-white wrappers printed with only two lines of text: the type of food and an enormous "19¢" to indicate the product's very low price.34 The major firms believed that lower quality standards would tarnish the image of the entire industry and ruin their long-term profit prospects. Consequently, in what became known within the industry as the "battle of the brands," the large packers began to slash prices in 1947 and then increasingly sold their own "B-grades" directly to supermarkets, hoping to eliminate the competition of the audacious interlopers.35 Within a few years, consumers could buy good-quality, nationally advertised frozen foods for prices equal to or lower than nineteen cents. 36

The major firms believed that lower quality standards would tarnish the image of the entire industry and ruin their long-term profit prospects.
—Shane Hamilton

In order to win the "battle of the brands," the major frozen-food makers had to transform their fundamental marketing vision. Leaders of the industry now promoted their ability to produce high-quality food at low prices. As they argued in trade-journal editorials and articles, the quick-freezing of foods allowed all consumers, not just the wealthy or fortuitously located, to have tasty, nutritious vegetables in any season of the year. As one executive suggested in 1952, modern methods of food production transformed the average American consumer into royalty, able to visit supermarkets year-round and choose from "a more princely selection than any king of old could command."37 The industry's primary trade journal, Quick Frozen Foods, constantly emphasized the high quality of frozen foods, even dramatizing this theme in a series of fictional stories in 1958. In these short pieces, a supermarket clerk named Red enjoys a series of "Adventures in Frozen Food Handling." Visiting an industrial farm and food-freezing plant, Red learns that science and technology have created a nearly perfect frozen vegetable. Seeds are scientifically engineered and selected, and workers and production cycles are scientifically managed. Advanced freezing, packing, and transportation technology assures that a vegetable's flavor and color is "locked in" immediately after harvest. Red incredulously asks his host, Farm Manager Jones, if "frozen vegetables are better than fresh." "'Unless you own your own farm they usually are,' replied Jones in all seriousness. . . . 'When you buy fresh produce in a market, the quality will vary from day to day and from season to season. 38 However, with frozen, the vegetable is processed during the best part of the season.'" When Red returns to his supermarket, he can be assured that his customers can buy the best, freshest, most nutritional vegetables year-round—but only if they buy frozen.

Successful mass marketing depended on convincing customers that frozen foods were high-quality goods despite their low price. Since frozen vegetables and fruit juices made up the backbone of the industry, marketers emphasized the nutritional advantages of quick-freezing. As Edwin Williams wrote in 1948, frozen-food advertising should underscore the idea that consumers could "get [their] vitamins from frozen foods—not from a [medicine] bottle." 39 Convinced that nutrition could team up with low prices to create a mass market for frozen foods in the 1950s, the National Association of Frozen Food Packers appropriated $250,000 to fund a Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) study comparing the nutritional value of frozen and canned vegetables.40 After the report's release in 1956, frozen-food leaders applauded the quarter-million-dollar investment, since WARF researchers had offered "scientific proof of nutritional superiority" for frozen vegetables compared with canned, citing higher levels of thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin A, vitamin C, and niacin.41 This scientific endeavor was not just an interesting contribution to the knowledge of humankind; it also offered a "valuable sales tool" that would make frozen-food sales skyrocket. 42 Although canned-food producers pointed out the biases inherent in the study, frozen-food advertisers felt they had the ammunition to convince consumers of what the packers had believed all along: frozen vegetables are good for you. 43

Excerpted with permission from "The Economies and Conveniences of Modern-Day Living: Frozen Foods and Mass Marketing, 1945-1965," Business History Review 77, Spring 2003.

Shane Hamilton is a doctoral candidate in the history and social studies of science and technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Birds Eye Advertisement from Life Magazine, 1949

Art reproduced by permission of Birds Eye Foods.

30. See, for instance, "Home Freezer Sales Are Setting New Records."

31. Roland Marchand has documented the tendency of 20th-century advertisers to depict products being used by consumers in a higher income bracket than the intended audience, in Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley, Calif. 1985).

32. See particularly Minnesota Valley Canning Company [Green Giant], Annual Report, 1948, 5. The company did try a limited run of frozen green peas in 1953 but found "the lack of profit generally throughout the industry in frozen peas, has determined us not to expand this operation at the present time." Green Giant Company, Annual Report, 1953, 3-4.

33. Libby, McNeill, and Libby, Annual Report, 1946.

34. "New Market for Frozen Food," Business Week, 23 June 1951, 134-5.

35. "Frozen Food Squeeze," Business Week, 22 Feb. 1947, 69-72; Edwin W. Williams, Frozen Foods: A Biography of an Industry (Boston, 1970), 65; "Comeback for Frozen Foods," Business Week, 19 Mar. 1949, 23.

36. "What Happened to B Grade?" QFF (Feb. 1953): 39; "Are B Grade Brands Coming Back?" QFF (Aug. 1958): 310.

37. "Royal Variety for America's Queen," FFF (1952): 116.

38. "Adventures in Frozen Food Handling, Ch. 8: Red Learns Why Frozen Vegetables Are Better," QFF (Aug. 1958): 70. On the role of agricultural scientists in the development of processed foods, see Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty, 109-10. For fascinating depictions of the technological complexity of a frozen-food farm and processing plant, see: "Biggest Vegetable Factory on Earth," Life, 3 Jan. 1953, 40-3.

39. E. W. Williams, "Frozen Foods Forum," QFF (Sept. 1948): 41.

40. The published study appeared in a science journal: Marie Burger et al., "Nutrients in Frozen Foods, Vitamin, Mineral, and Proximate Composition of Frozen Fruits, Juices, and Vegetables," Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 4 (May 1956): 418-25.

41. "Scientific Proof of Nutritional Superiority to Multiply Demand for Frozen Foods," QFF (Apr. 1956): 132.

42. "The Wisconsin Study of Frozen Food Nutritional Values," FFF (1957): 66-71. By selling nutrition, packers were tapping into a relatively recent trend of Americans paying attention to the healthfulness of food. Harvey Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York, 1988).

43. Canned-food makers complained that the canned vegetables under study had already been cooked by the processors. Frozen foods, they argued, would lose vitamin content after consumers cooked them.