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MCLEAN, Va. -- The American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), based here, yesterday issued a heartfelt tribute to one of its own -- Gerald E. "Gerry" Thomas, inventor of the TV dinner, who died in Paradise Valley, Ariz. this week of cancer at the age of 83.
"Throughout his life, Gerry reminded us that innovation comes from individuals' experience, knowledge, creativity, and passion," noted AFFI president and c.e.o. Leslie G. Sarasin in a statement the trade association provided to Progressive Grocer. "He also reminded us that innovation is a lifelong pursuit."
As a salesman for frozen food company C.A. Swanson and Sons in the early 1950s, Thomas developed frozen meals in trays with separate sections for each meal part, an innovation he based on the trays in which airline meals were served. Swanson TV Dinners, which debuted in 1954, proved hugely popular with the public.
While working in the marketing department at Campbell Soup Co., which acquired Swanson in 1955, Thomas began a consumer information program for the AFFI, which was then known as the National Association for Frozen Food Packers. During his chairmanship of the association the 1960s, it worked with microwave oven manufacturers to create new food packaging without metals, resulting in microwaveable frozen meals.
Later Thomas stayed active as a member of the organization's Past Chairmen Advisory Committee. "He served as the inspiration for many of his peers and for many who followed him in this industry, and he was part of the competitive force that brings about advancement," noted Sarasin.
Today's frozen food business garners about $30 billion in annual retail sales, according to the AFFI's Web site.
Thomas is survived by his wife, Susan; seven children; and six grandchildren.