Refrigerated Nation
The Landscape of Perishable Food in America

3310 Supermarket freezer aisles, the end of the cold chain. CLUI photo

WHEN WE THINK of food, and look into our refrigerator, we open a door that is at the end of a long corridor of continuous coldness that reaches back through grocery store aisles, through fleets of refrigerated trucks and trains serving a nationwide network of chilled warehouses, and into chilled packing plants and food factories. This is the cold chain, which is like other product supply chains, except that it mechanically maintains a low temperature throughout, slowing the growth of bacteria and rot, allowing a wider variety of foods to reach us from greater distances. Like a time machine, the cold chain slows down the clock, letting more space slip by, enabling a continentally-scaled food supply to exist.

The cold chain was the subject of an exhibit at the CLUI in early 2013, titled Perishable: An Exploration of the Refrigerated Landscape of America, which was an opportunity for us to conduct extensive research and field photography on a subject that needed more representation in our database: the national foodscape that supports our life.

Of the 2,000 pounds of food consumed by the average American every year, more than half is directly dependent on refrigeration, such as meat, vegetables, dairy, fruit, and frozen foods. Another 20% is at least partially dependent on refrigeration at some point in its processing. The rest, things like noodles, corn chips, syrups, oils, bread, sugars, and cereal, are manufactured, distributed and stored at room temperature.

3334 CLUI photo
Fruits and Vegetables
Most harvested fruit and vegetables quickly find their way into the cold chain, to be shipped fresh and whole, or headed to processors to be turned into juice, paste, and other chilled and unchilled products. Americans eat around 225 lbs of fruit per person, per year, though much of that is as fruit juice. The top three fresh fruits are oranges, bananas, and apples.

Almost 45 lbs of oranges are consumed per person per year, making this the most consumed fruit in the USA. Most of it (35 lbs) is processed into juice, which is chilled until it is pasteurized, and even sometimes after that. Two thirds of this goes on in Florida, though California produces a lot of oranges too, especially those which end up being consumed whole.

Juice is shipped in bulk via the Tropicana Juice Train to one of three primary packaging and distribution centers. The largest facility, in Greenville, New Jersey, serves the northeastern USA, and handles half the company’s product.

Several other large juice companies dominate the industry in Florida, such as the Brazilian company Citrosuco, which processes 30 million boxes of oranges a year at its plant in Lake Wales, Florida. Citrosuco is the largest orange juice company in the world, and operates a major juice storage terminal at the Port of Wilmington, Delaware, where more than ten million gallons of chilled juice can be stored for distribution to the Northeast. The juice arrives via a fleet of four refrigerated juice ships.

Florida’s Natural is the third largest orange juice maker in America, with a 21% share of the not-from-concentrate market. The company’s Lake Wales facility can juice 11 million pounds of fruit every 24 hours. Minute Maid, another popular brand,  got its start in Plymouth, Florida, where it still operates an R&D center that helped boost the nation’s thirst for orange juice.

In the USA, bananas are the fruit that is consumed most whole: 26 lbs of them per person per year: more than whole apples (16 lbs), watermelons (15 lbs), and whole oranges (9 lbs). Unlike these other fruits, there is no commercial banana production in the United States. All of the fruit is imported, largely from Central and South America.


Dole and Chiquita dominate the banana industry in the USA, importing the fruit primarily through ports at Wilmington, Delaware and Port Hueneme, California. The banana and fresh fruit trade favors small niche ports that are not subject to the delays and congestion of the larger ports like Los Angeles and New York.

Chiquita is the successor to the United Fruit Company and is the leading distributor of bananas in the United States. It is headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina.


Bananas are shipped unripe, and are held in specialty storage facilities near major cities and distribution points. Banana Distributors of New York for example, has 22 ripening rooms, where up to 20,000 boxes of bananas are stored to within half a degree of 62°F. The facility ships a million boxes of bananas every year, or nearly two million bananas each week, throughout the NYC area.

A Coast Tropical facility in Los Angeles, near the wholesale produce distribution center south of downtown, operates North America’s largest banana ripening facility, with fifty pressurized rooms.

3335 Port Hueneme, north of Los Angeles, is a major fruit importation site, especially for bananas. Facilities there include Del Monte’s Western Distribution Center, and other cold storage warehouses. CLUI photo
Apples are the third most consumed fruit in the US, after oranges and bananas. Like oranges, most apples are consumed as juice, and processed into other forms (such as dried, canned, or processed sauce). Around 16 lbs of fresh apples, whole, sliced, or in baked goods, are consumed per person per year in the US.

Washington State is the primary source of apples in the United States, providing almost 60% of the apples produced domestically. The eastern Washington city of Wenatchee claims to be the center of apple production. It at least is the home of the Washington Apple Association, a major marketer of apples.

There is a large Tree Top plant in town, one of a few in the region. The Tree Top brand of apple juice is one of the largest nationally distributed brands. One third of Washington’s apple crop goes into juice, but the rest is distributed as whole fruit.

30 miles up the Columbia River from Wenatchee is Chelan, where the Chelan Fruit Cooperative is based. This is one of the largest cooperatives in the state, packing four million boxes of apples a year. Apples are picked by hand, and collected in large wood or plastic bulk bins, which are transported from the orchards to the plant. At the plant the apples are sorted, waxed, and stored, then eventually boxed for shipping.
Because the harvest is seasonal, most apples are stored for months before being boxed and shipped. They are held in sealed rooms within vast warehouse buildings, in what is known as Controlled Atmosphere Storage (CA). These rooms are chilled to around 34°F, and most of the oxygen is removed and replaced with nitrogen. This slows the ripening process nearly to a halt.

Washington growers developed this process to be able to provide a continuous supply of apples year round. The buildings are vast–some Controlled Atmosphere buildings can hold 100,000 boxes in one room. The total capacity that can be held in suspension is 121,000,000 boxes, more than the entire annual output of apples from the state.

After the big three (oranges, bananas, and apples), the major fruits distributed and consumed in the USA, including other citrus, various melons, grapes, and berries, are generally imported or grown on diversified farms, mostly in California. They are packed and stored in warehouses near the farms, and shipped through national cold storage distribution networks to the rest of the country.

With seven billion dollars in annual revenue, Dole, headquartered in Westlake Village, California, north of Malibu, is the largest producer and marketer of fresh fruit and vegetables in the nation.Chiquita, famous as a banana brand, is the second largest producer and marketer of fresh fruits and vegetables in the country.

Americans consume around 7 lbs of strawberries per person per year, and California produces more than 80% of the domestic fresh strawberries consumed in the USA. Much of the strawberry harvest is turned into pastes for flavoring processed foods.

The Driscoll’s Company is probably the largest fresh strawberry producer in the country, with a 20% share of the market, and a major packing house in Watsonville, California. Frozsun Foods is the largest producer of frozen strawberries, making some of its 130 million lbs of processed fruit products at a plant in Santa Maria, California.

Though most grapes produced in the country are for wine, eight pounds of table grapes are consumed per person per year in the USA. The Guimarra company of California is the nation’s largest table grape producer.  The diversified grower Sun World is also a major storer and packager of grapes. Grapes can be held in cold storage for up to five months, in order to be sold to store buyers and exporters as needed.

Melons are grown in a number of states, but California produces the vast majority of them. Cantaloupes are among the most popular melon, with consumption per person around nine pounds per year.

Lowly Potato is King of the Vegetables
Potatoes are the leading vegetable crop in the USA, with most coming from Washington and Idaho. After harvesting, potatoes are held in chilled storage warehouses until they are distributed. Almost 40% of the nation’s potato output is cut, processed, frozen, bagged, and distributed as fries, 90% of them to restaurants. The average American consumes around 29 lbs of frozen French fries per year.

The Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Company is said to have invented the modern industrial French fry in the early 1950s, and has been the largest French fry supplier for McDonalds since the 1960s. Simplot is also a major industrial fertilizer and cattle company, and one of the largest privately held companies in the USA.

Simplot’s plant in Nampa, Idaho is one of six frozen potato plants operated by the company. It makes frozen shoestrings, thin cuts, regular cuts, wedge cuts, batter-coated, tater gems, and hashbrowns. The company’s plant in Caldwell, Idaho, makes the same lineup, minus the batter-coated and wedge cuts.  

Ore-Ida is another major frozen food and French fry company, and is a division of Heinz Foods. Its plant in Ontario, Oregon is just over the line from Idaho, and gives the brand its name: Ore-Ida. Ore-Ida claims to have invented the tater tot, which is manufactured at the plant in abundance. With around 1,000 employees, the plant may be the largest French fry factory in the world.

Lamb Weston has seven frozen potato plants in the Columbia River Basin, and employs nearly 5,000 people in the region. ConAgra Foods, the food processing giant, owns Lamb Weston now.

3336 Potatoes awaiting shipping and processing are stored in chilled storage sheds like Lamb Weston’s in Quincy, Washington. CLUI photo

Most vegetables other than potatoes produced in the USA are grown by large and small farms that grow a variety of crops, and alternate their products according to season, demand, and soil conditions. Some companies specialize in packing and storing certain types of produce, while others emerge as superlative packers simply due to their overall high volumes of production.

Though northwestern and midwestern states generate produce in the summer, most fresh vegetables come from the Central Valley of California, which is productive year round. Many major growers also have operations in the Imperial Valley too, in the low desert next to Arizona and Mexico, which is one of the few places fertile and hot enough to be productive in the dead of winter.

Americans eat around 20 lbs of tomatoes a year, per person, in their fresh form–mostly in salads and on sandwiches. Around 80% of tomatoes that are grown in the USA are turned into paste, sauce, juice, and catsup. The vast majority of processed and fresh tomatoes are grown in California, but Florida is a major producer of fresh tomatoes as well. Tomatoes are generally picked when green, and ripened with ethylene gas.

Major producers include Morning Star, whose plant in Los Banos, California, is one of the largest tomato paste processing plants in the nation. J.G. Boswell of Corcoran, California, one of the largest overall growers in the west, has around 23,000 acres of tomatoes, and processes most of them in plants around Corcoran. Hunt’s Tomatoes, owned by ConAgra, is likely the largest tomato processor, and has a major facility in Helm, in the Central Valley of California.

Americans consume around 20 lbs of lettuce per person per year, much of it as garnish on burgers. Nearly all domestic lettuce is grown in California, and shipped nationwide in chilled trucks. The Salinas Valley in California is the largest lettuce producing area, and River Ranch Fresh Foods is possibly the largest grower and packager of lettuce there.

Onions are the second highest valued vegetable crop in the USA, with Americans eating 20 lbs a year per person. River Point Farms, in Hermiston, Oregon, is probably the largest grower, packer, shipper, and processor of onions, producing almost half a billion pounds per year.

There are of course other vegetables beyond lettuce, tomato, onions, and potatoes–the most consumed vegetables in the American diet, not coincidentally commonly found around a cheeseburger.

Americans eat around seven pounds of carrots per person per year. With as much as 40,000 acres of carrots in cultivation at times, Grimmway Farms, based in Lamont, California, is likely the largest producer of carrots.

Americans eat around six pounds of broccoli per person per year. Mann’s, in Salinas, California, is probably the largest shipper of broccoli. Americans eat around nine pounds of bell peppers per person per year, most of it imported from South America, or grown in California. Duda Farms in Salinas may be the largest producer of celery, which Americans consume at the rate of six pounds per person per year.

While many of the diversified growers and packagers of fresh fruits and vegetables in California also freeze their products, others specialize in flash-freezing, such as Inn Foods in Watsonville, which is one of the largest packagers of frozen vegetables, mixing and blending some 157 million pounds per year. With the shorter growing seasons in the rest of the country, growers and packagers in other states are more prone to freeze their produce, so they can distribute it year round.

Pictsweet, for example, based in Tennessee, is among the largest frozen vegetable packers and distributors in the nation. Green Giant, with roots in Minnesota, is another major frozen vegetable brand.

Birds Eye is an early and famous brand of frozen foods, with several frozen vegetable plants in the upper Midwest. Birds Eye was founded in 1923 by Clarence Birdseye, who is credited for developing the flash freezing technique that created the frozen food industry (though he did so while working on frozen fish, in Gloucester, Massachusetts).

3337 The Birds Eye facility in Darien, Wisconsin packs and freezes vegetables in the summer, and makes frozen meals and side-dishes throughout the year. It has an Americold Warehouse next to it, additional cold storage for its wares. CLUI photo
The Meat of the Matter
Americans eat more than 200 lbs of meat per person per year. 3/4 of this is beef, chicken, and pork, with the rest mostly in the form of turkey and seafood. All of this is of course processed, housed, and transported to consumers in the cold chain.

Beef and chicken are still the largest segment of the American meat industry, with around 65 lbs consumed per person per year of each. There are nearly 100 million beef cows in the USA, 30 million or so of which are slaughtered annually. Around half of these are in Texas. Four companies produce 80% of the beef in the USA: Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and National Beef.

Tyson Foods is the largest meat company in America, with around 25% market share. It became the largest beef company when it purchased IBP in 2001, and it now has 13 beef packing plants in the country, including some of the largest, at Dakota City, Nebraska and Amarillo, Texas.

Cargill, the second largest beef company, is based in Minnesota, and is better know for its diverse agribusinesses, such as flour milling, cornsyrup, and soybeans. It is the largest privately held company in the USA, and would likely rank as the 9th largest company if it were publically traded.

JBS bought Swift, the nation’s third largest beef packer in 2007, and is now the third largest beef company. It is based in Greely, Colorado, where it operates one of the largest packing plants in the country. JBS is owned by a Brazilian parent company, which is the largest meat company in the world.

National Beef, the fourth largest beef company in the USA, is based in Kansas City, and has seven major packing plants, generating $6 billion in annual sales.
 
Smaller beef companies and distribution centers around urban areas hold and age meat for local and regional distribution. Master Purveyors, for example, is a distributor in New York City. Its dry aging meat lockers house around 10% of all USDS-certified prime Angus beef.

The Vernon Beef Company, in the industrial city of Vernon, California, is one of several meat packaging and distributing plants in the Los Angeles region. Local grocery distributors like Kroger use it to supply their in-store meat departments.

3338 Like many of the old urban stockyards, those in Omaha have mostly been redeveloped, though there are still several meatpackers still operating on its periphery, such as the Greater Omaha Packing Company, which processes 750,000 steers annually. CLUI photo
At 60 lbs per person, per year, chicken consumption in the USA is rising, while the consumption of beef is falling. Around 8.6 billion chickens are slaughtered in the country annually, producing almost 50 billion pounds of meat. Top-producing states, with more than a billion each, are Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama.

Tyson, America’s largest distributor of meats overall, started out as a chicken company, and it still dominates the industry. The company is headquartered in Springdale, Arkansas, 20 miles from Walmart’s  world headquarters. There is a Tyson chicken plant in Springdale too, one of 36 the company operates in the USA.

Pilgrim’s Pride is the second largest chicken producer in the country, with 25 plants, including six in Georgia. Pilgrim’s Pride was purchased by JBS in 2009. Less than half as large is Purdue Farms, the nation’s third largest chicken company, based in Maryland.

Americans eat around 46 lbs of pork per person per year, from around 110 million pigs slaughtered every year. Top-producing states are Iowa, North Carolina, Minnesota, and Illinois.

Tyson, the largest meat company, is also a major player in the pork sector, with six pork processing plants, including one in Logansport, Indiana, that employs nearly 2,000 people.

The largest pork processor in America–by far–is Smithfield Foods, whose massive plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina is known as “porkopolis.” The million square-foot plant, said to be the largest slaughterhouse in the world, is a heavily automated disassembly line, processing up to 32,000 hogs per day. Smithfield Foods  was sold in 2013 to the Shuanghi Group of China.

Turkey is a distant fourth in the meat world, around 16 lbs per person per year consumption. It’s still a significant industry, producing $5 billion annually, at the farm level, and 6 billion pounds of meat, from 250 million birds. Most production is in Minnesota, North Carolina, and Arkansas.

Turkey producers include Jenny-O in Minnesota, Cargill, Farbest Foods, and many small local producers. West Liberty Foods has three turkey plants in the USA, including its first one in West Liberty, Iowa, and a new plant in Tremonton, Utah, built to serve markets in the West.  

Butterball is the largest turkey processor, with five plants in the USA, and its facility at Mount Olive, North Carolina is the largest turkey plant in the world.

Fish Stories
Americans eat 16 lbs of seafood per person per year. 86% of it is imported, though some of it is actually exported from the U.S., processed elsewhere, and then re-imported. U.S. production is dominated by Alaska, where the port in Dutch Harbor lands more than 500 million pounds of fish per year. The relatively small port of Reedville, Virginia is currently the largest East Coast fishing port, measured in the weight of its landed catch.

The port of New Bedford, Massachusetts had the highest value of landed seafood of any port in the lower 48: $306 million in 2010. This is due to the high value paid for scallops, and because New Bedford is the largest scallop port in the nation. The Eastern Fisheries Company, based there, is the largest scallop harvester and packer in the world. Most scallops are exported.

Gorton’s, in Gloucester, Massachusetts is the largest national brand of frozen fish, and a major provider of breaded whitefish to supermarkets and restaurants, including McDonald’s. Gorton’s is believed to be the inventor of frozen fishsticks, part of the legacy of food freezing innovation started by Clarence Birdseye, who began the frozen food industry by developing a flash freezing system at the General Seafood Company in Gloucester in 1926.

Though located at the port in Gloucester, Gorton’s now uses mostly Pacific Pollock from Alaska, as local stocks of whitefish are now depleted. Gorton’s is owned by a Japanese company. Japan and other Pacific nations consume much more fish per capita than Americans, and thier companies dominate the industry.

On the West Coast of the USA, companies like International Pacific Seafood in Fullerton, California are a major importer and exporter of fish around the Pacific, dealing mostly with frozen products  shipped between the Port of Los Angeles and Japan. Advanced Fresh Concepts in Compton, California is the largest sushi provider in the USA. The company provides packaged sushi meals to retailers such as Costco and other national chains.

Eggs and Dairy
Of the 33 lbs of eggs consumed per person per year in the USA, around ten pounds is from egg products in processed foods. That leaves around 90 billion shell eggs to be scrambled, omeletted, boiled, fried, or mixed into foods. Iowa is the major producer, with 52 million egg-laying chickens, followed by Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.

Major egg producers have farms with long sheds, containing thousands of birds, and cold storage sheds for holding the eggs. Rose Acre Farms is one of the largest egg producers in the nation, with 24 million birds, at several large farms. Its facility in Guthrie Center, Iowa may be the largest egg farm in the nation. Cal-Maine foods, Moark, and Spartoe farms are also major national egg companies.

Dairy products seem to be everywhere in our diets, and are nearly entirely dependent on refrigeration, unless they are so processed that they become inert. Americans consume more than 80 lbs of cream, butter, yogurt, ice cream, and cheese, per person per year, and another six gallons of liquid milk. All of this, with the exception of some cheese, is dependent on the cold chain.

There are nine million milk cows in the USA, at 65,000 dairy farms. California leads with 39 billion pounds of milk generated per year, followed by Wisconsin, with 25 billion. New York is third, with 12 billion. Many of the dairy staples, such as milk, butter, cream, yogurt, and cheese, are processed and packaged at the dairy farms themselves. Mostly though, it occurs in creameries and processing centers in towns and cities, supplied with milk from dairies. Large factory-type creameries sometimes specialize in just a few of these products.

Fair Oaks Farms, in northern Indiana, is one of the largest dairies in the nation. It is close enough to metropolitan Chicago to attract school children and the public for tours.  It is increasingly common for dairy operations to develop a public face, though most of the 30,000 cows at Fair Oaks are in a few dozen large sheds, far from the playschool farm displays and gift shops, off limits to the public.

Large scale production of dairy products often occurs at urban creameries, where milk is delivered by tanker truck, and perishable products are quickly shipped to retailers. Such is the case at the Alta Dena Dairy in the City of Industry, in Southern California, one of the major suppliers of milk, cream, and butter to Los Angeles’ retail grocery stores. Grocery store chain Kroger operates the Compton Creamery, south of Los Angeles, another major source of dairy for the region.

Specialized regional mega-plants also develop, such as the Dannon Yogurt plant in Minster, Ohio, which until recently was the largest yogurt plant in the nation. A few bigger facilities have recently come on line, responding to rapidly increasing demand for greek yogurt. Dannon itself recently converted its water bottling plant in West Jordan, Utah, into a yogurt plant, to serve western markets.

3339 Ben and Jerry’s, owned by the large European food conglomerate Unilever, produces most of its ice cream not in the touristed plant in Waterbury, Vermont, but in an industrial park in St. Albans, Vermont. CLUI photo
1,100 plants in the USA supply the 24 lbs of ice cream that Americans consume per person every year. California has more than 200 ice cream plants, and makes more ice cream than any other state. Dreyer’s operates what may be the largest ice cream plant in the nation in Bakersfield, California.

Most ice cream is produced close to its market. Ben and Jerry’s, though, is entirely made in Vermont, and is shipped nationally in small cartons that have to stay frozen. Tourism is built into their first plant and their headquarters in Waterbury, Vermont, though most of their product is made at a much bigger un-touristed plant in an industrial park in St. Albans, north of Burlington. Ben and Jerry’s is owned by Unilever, a British conglomerate, and is the biggest ice cream company in the world.

In dairy, localism can be as important to a brand as terroir is to wines. Consider Tillamook, a nationally distributed cheese brand, based in a small Oregon town, and Cabot Cheese, also distributed nationally, but based conceptually and physically in Vermont. Their original plant in the scenic small town of Cabot is a Vermont dairy business tourism destination, like Ben and Jerry’s. Similarly too, most of their product is made in an industrial park elsewhere (in Middlebury).

Though these small national/local brands have high visibility for some, they still represent a small fraction of the 31 lbs of cheese consumed by each of us Americans, per year, mostly through consumption of prepared foods like pizza.

Mega-cheese company Schreiber claims to put the cheese on nine out of every ten fast-food cheeseburgers in the USA. One of its principal plants and distribution centers is in Fairview, Missouri, a central part of a distribution network of 16 plants that puts its product within one day of all major markets in the lower 48.

Schreiber’s facility in Logan, Utah is currently the company’s most productive plant. It handles over 170 million pounds of cheese a year, and is expanding.

Mozzarella is the most consumed type of cheese in the country, and Leprino makes more of it than anybody. Their factory in Lemoore, California, is one of the largest cheese plants in the country.

Though California surpassed Wisconsin in milk production, Wisconsin still produces slightly more cheese. Land O’Lakes is a major dairy company with a number of cheese plants in Wisconsin, including one in Kiel, an industrial cheese-making center. Sargento Foods has one of its four Wisconsin cheese plants in Kiel. The company specializes in shredded and snack cheeses, and in custom cheese products for national restaurant chains and manufacturers.
 
The king of cheese in America, of course, is Kraft, headquartered in Northfield, Illinois, near Chicago. The company started when James Kraft figured out how to put cheese in a can to increase its shelf life. In doing so, he invented a new product known as embalmed cheese. Based out of its R&D center in nearby Glenview, the company continues to engineer cheese into new dimensions.

There are around a dozen Kraft plants in the USA, including one at Upper Macungie, Pennsylvania, which makes Velveeta and other cheese products. Another in Springfield, Missouri is the principal Kraft Macaroni & Cheese producer, though it also makes Cheez Whiz, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Velveeta, and Kraft Singles.

Nearby is an unusual cold storage facility known as Springfield Underground. Kraft is a major customer there, storing millions of pounds of product in this underground cheese cave. This is not to be confused with a more legendary cheese cave in Kansas, where a few decades ago millions of pounds of government subsidized cheese rotted away until President Reagan changed Federal cheese policy.

3340 Nestle’s Prepared Foods division in Solon, Ohio, makes Stouffers and Lean Cuisine products, and is possibly the largest single source of frozen dinners in the country. CLUI photo
Due Process: Manufactured Foods
The cold chain has enabled a whole new form of food to be created –the frozen dinner. This delight is perhaps the apogee of the whole genre of substantially processed foods that emerged in the post-war industrialization of food production.

At least 70% of the food Americans eat is substantially processed, meaning, basically manufactured, rather than simply washed, pealed, cut, and cooked at home. This includes prepared foods that are removed from the cold chain, such as cookies, canned soups, bags of chips, and cereals. But it also includes luncheon meats, frozen dinners, and other prepared foods that must remain chilled or frozen.

These manufactured foods are made by mechanically and chemically deconstructing and merging components derived from basic foods and edible non-foods, such as dairy, meats, fats, oils, grains, legumes, minerals, and petrochemicals, treated to a nearly infinite variety of industrial processes to form food-like material, which is packaged, sold, and consumed. It’s about breaking food down, in order to build it back up in a more appealing and economical form.

Cargill dominates this form of food manufacturing in America, and operates on an industrial supply level, generating animal feed, meats, glutens, starches, salt, and ingredient systems.

Archer Daniels Midland is another major industrial food components company, extracting compounds from corn and soy to make additives and ingredients, mostly outside the cold chain.

Tate and Lyle is another major food additive supplier, providing processed food makers with starches, acidulants, fructose, dextrose, and proteins.

ConAgra is among the largest prepared food companies in the country, using these building blocks to make foods for industry, and for consumers, though familiar brands. ConAgra is based in Omaha, and claims that its food is found in 97% of American households. Much of its products are grains, sauces, oils, and canned goods, which exist outside the cold chain. But the company is also one of the largest manufacturers of frozen entrees and other chilled prepared foods.

ConAgra’s plant in Marshall, Missouri, for example, makes frozen pot pies and nuggets under its Banquet brand, supplied partially by Cargill’s case-ready meat plant, nearby.

The company’s Council Bluffs, Iowa plant makes packaged and frozen entrees for its Marie Callender’s, Healthy Choice, and Rosarita brands. Its Indianapolis facility is a major margarine plant, producing for the company’s Blue Bonnet, Parkay, and Fleischmann’s brands.

In Russellville, Arkansas, the company makes frozen pizzas for its Bertolli brand, and frozen Chinese-style entrees for its P.F. Chang’s brand.  In Troy, Ohio it makes The MAX product line of frozen pizzas, and Slim Jim meat sticks.

Nestle is another big player in the frozen prepared foods industry. Based in Switzerland, it is the world’s largest processed food company. Its U.S. headquarters is in Glendale, California. The company makes Stouffer’s and Lean Cuisine frozen dinners at its plant in Solon, Ohio, the headquarters for the company’s prepared foods division. It makes Hot Pockets, another popular frozen food product, at a plant in Chatsworth, California. Nestle purchased Kraft’s frozen pizza division, headquartered north of Chicago, in 2010, acquiring the leading DiGiorno and Tombstone brands, among others.

Kraft specializes in cheese, but has other chilled deli foods brands, like Oscar Mayer. A Kraft plant in Fullerton, California is the principal production site for Lunchables, one of its most popular chilled prepared foods.

There are hundreds of lesser known national and regional prepared foods brands operating all over the country as well. Companies like Pinnacle, of Parsippany, New Jersey, which builds processed foods and markets them through their well-known brands, like Hungry Man and Duncan Hines. Or Schwan Foods, which makes Mrs. Smith’s frozen pies in Stillwell, Oklahoma. Or On-Cor’s plant in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, which makes familiar frozen dinners and fully cooked meat products for the frozen food aisle.

Most of the tamales and burritos made by Ruiz Foods, the 12th largest prepared meal company in the country, are made at a plant in Dinuba, California. They can be found in grocery freezer cases, vending machines, and convenience stores across the country.

There are many wholesale and custom prepared food companies operating in industrial parks all over the country, supplying food service companies, institutions, and products for others to brand.

Haliburton International Foods, in Ontario, California, for example, makes fresh salsa, hummus, and other vegetable-based products for national restaurant chains. Van Law Foods of Fullerton, California is another private label food manufacturer and packager, supplying retailers and restaurant chains. Little Lady Foods in Elk Grove, Wisconsin is a custom frozen food manufacturer, specializing in things made of “flour, water, and stuff” such as sandwiches and pizza.

Massachusetts-based Richelieu Foods makes frozen pizza for other brands at its plant in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Kettle Creations makes mashed potato meals and casseroles for food service and institutional customers, out of its single plant in Lima, Ohio. And so it goes.

3341 An Americold cold storage warehouse outside Atlanta, Georgia, with a reefer trailer from Central Refrigerated, of Salt Lake City, and the tell-tale orange windsock that all refrigerated warehouses have, to indicate wind direction in case of an accidental release of the refrigerant, ammonia. CLUI photo
Distribution: The Links of the Cold Chain
In the cold chain, as in all things, distribution is the fulcrum between production and consumption. In some cases distribution is handled from the production side, by the manufacturing and packaging companies themselves. In other cases it is handled from the consumption side by retailers and grocery distributors.

Often though, in the middle, are cold storage companies, like Americold, providing warehousing for our food when it is between here, and there. There are more than a thousand large cold storage warehouses spread out all over the country, next to food plants, but also in suburban office parks and in regional logistics areas.

Hundreds of thousands of refrigerated trucks hold the cold chain together, linking packing house, plant, warehouse, distribution center, and retailer. In particular, it is long distance semi-trucks hauling reefers–trailers with the refrigeration unit mounted on the front–manufactured by one of two companies: Carrier or Thermo King.
 
Two companies dominate the long haul reefer trucking business. C.R. England trucking, headquartered in Salt Lake City, has the largest fleet of reefer trucks in the country. Its trucks are all over the nation’s highways, dispatched out of terminals in California, New Jersey, Indiana, Texas, and Salt Lake City. Marten, headquartered in Mondovi, Wisconsin, has the second largest fleet of reefer trucks.
 
These thousands of trucks move between loading bays at food plants, packing houses, and cold storage warehouse companies, the largest of which is Americold.

Americold is based in Atlanta, and owns and operates more than 100 cold storage warehouses in the USA, providing a total of nearly 900 million cubic feet of chilled storage space, more than three times that of its nearest competitor.

Americold has warehouses in the upper Midwest, supporting the cheese, processed foods, and vegetable industries in the region. Its warehouses are often next door to food plants. Americold operates one of the largest underground storage warehouses in the country, in Carthage, Missouri, where the company uses three million square feet of the former limestone mine, which has tunnels that run for miles. The cold storage there is further chilled with refrigerant plants on the surface that pump air into the caverns.

Lineage Logistics, based in Southern California, is the second largest cold storage warehousing company, with around 45 chilled and frozen warehouses around the country, and a total of 290 million cubic feet of chilled space. Like Americold, some facilities are dedicated to specific production sites, usually adjacent or at least nearby to the plant or packing house. Others are public, meaning they are used by a variety of paying customers. Lineage also operates seven public cold warehouses at ports on the East and West Coasts.

Millard is the third largest cold storage company in the country. It has 33 U.S. locations, including one near its headquarters in Omaha, near the stockyards. It is followed by Preferred Freezer Services, the country’s fourth largest, which has 31 facilities in the USA, including in Chicago, New Jersey, and California. And United States Cold Storage, the fifth largest cold storage company in the nation, with 31 locations, including one in Bakersfield, California, near the Dreyer’s ice cream plant.

All told there are around 10 cold storage companies that offer more than 50 million cubic feet of warehousing and multiple locations in the country, and another 15 or so with between 16 and 50 million cubic feet.

In the old days, things were a lot more centralized, with downtown cold storage buildings next to in-town wholesale markets. Some of these places still hang on, like Hall Street Cold Storage in New York City, and Los Angeles Cold Storage, near downtown LA.

Food Service and Grocery
Commercial food service companies supply food to restaurants, hotels, schools, hospitals, and government facilities. Sysco is the largest of these companies, with 180 locations in the USA. The company employs 45,000 people and does nearly $40 billion in business every year. Most of its production and storage locations have significant cold storage facilities.

US Foods is number two in the food service industry, and is half as big as Sysco. It has 60 locations in the USA.

Many large cities still have wholesale markets, like New York City’s Hunts Point. These are places where suppliers and wholesalers meet to do business in perishables. In Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market opened in 2011, with a quarter mile-long sales floor, used by around 26 wholesalers. The entire building is chilled to 50°F or less.

In Los Angeles, the wholesale produce market near downtown has more than 100 individual wholesale bays, each with its own few hundred square feet of cold storage. Sales to restaurants and retailers is conducted mostly in the pre-dawn hours, when produce is displayed in the front of the stall. After that it is moved back into storage.

Most retail grocery distribution goes through retail cooperatives, such as Associated Wholesale Grocers. One of the largest, they serve 2,900 retail stores in 24 states, from nine distribution centers, including a central one in Springfield, Missouri.

Often the grocery distributor is not a co-op, but a branded wholesaler and retailer like Supervalu, which supplies 3,400 stores. Supervalu, based in Minnesota, also supplies the stores it serves with their house brand of products. Supervalu is the third largest grocery retailer in the country. It has stores under its own name, and  operates under several other retail brands, like Shop n’ Save (though it is currently in a deal to sell its Albertsons, Shaw, and Star Market brands).

Safeway is the second largest grocery chain in the country, and its warehouse in Tracy, California, near the company’s headquarters in Pleasanton, is one of its largest. The dominant grocer in the nation is Cincinnati-based  Kroger, which has almost 2,500 stores under its Ralphs, Food for Less, Smiths, Dillons, FredMeyer, and Kroger retail chains, generating nearly $100 billion in sales annually.  Kroger is second only to the still-reigning king of American retail, Walmart.

As it does with other segments of retail, Walmart dominates the grocery trade. More than 3,000 of its stores sell a full line of groceries. 15% of the perishable foods sold in the USA are from a Walmart or one of its club stores, more than its top three competitors–Kroger, Safeway, and Supervalu–combined. ♦

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Perishable: An Exploration of the Refrigerated Landscape of America was created by the staff of the CLUI and Nicola Twilley, author of the blog Edible Geography, and was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation.

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