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The day the milk stood still

The Local · 15 Dec 2009, 16:31

Published: 15 Dec 2009 16:31 GMT+01:00

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As I slouched around Dublin in the 1990s, enjoying my first experiences of shopping for food, paying bills and choosing the wrong women entirely, I did not give a thought to those best-before dates. You just bought what you wanted, you took it home and if it smelled funny or grew hair, you tossed it out. Meat, fish and dairy you had to be a little careful with, by storing them properly and using them fairly quickly, but anything in a packet or a tin would, in my eyes and the eyes of my peers, essentially last forever.

But not so here. When I first came to Sweden I was amazed to find that people took these dates seriously. They prowled the shops, squinting at the dates to find the food with the longest "life", and they would actually refuse to eat food, even dried or canned, if that magic date was near or had passed. Any food even close to "expiring" may as well have been dipped in a toilet, because it just wasn't being bought, unless it was by drunk people on the way home from a party, or those who had worn the wrong pair of glasses to the shop that day.

I discovered quickly that if you wanted a lively fight with your Swedish partner, you just had to bring home some milk that "went out" in a couple of days, prepare a cup of tea and then watch the fur fly.

Best-before dates on tinned food I find especially hilarious. Tinned food lasts for years, even decades, in that sealed and sterile environment. Most tinned goods have best-before dates several years in the future, and yet people here still follow them religiously. Can anybody really believe that a serious estimation can be made about how "good" something will be in three or four years from now? That the moment when the bacterial horde wriggles to life and turns the food evil can be pinpointed that precisely, to the very minute? It truly boggles the mind.

"Bäst före" or "best before" simply means what it says - that the food in question will very probably hold 100% of its quality until the stated day. After that day there is a statistical likelihood that the food will start to lose its quality, but it will probably be perfectly edible for many more days, if not months.

The packaging plant doesn't add time-release poison capsules, or specially programmed bacteria, or tiny men in miniature food-zapping submarines that turn the food in question to poison at the stroke of midnight. And it doesn't say "lethal after" or "death date" or even "throw away and start praying" on the package, does it? But still the whole country acts as if it did.

They even have a concept in Sweden called "kort datum", or "short date". This is food sold at a reduction that hasn't "gone out" yet but that is just about to, oh yes it will, fatally and dramatically in a few short days from now. The shops are forced to do this because people also avoid food that might have a chance of expiring before they have used it up, and so they shift back the date a few days in their heads when shopping.

Anecdotes from this area are rife. I have known of people drinking milk before midnight but refusing to drink it after, a few hours later, because it had now officially "gone off". I heard a story of people arriving at a house without any food except for one item that had "expired", and everybody electing to go hungry instead of eating it. And there is my own favourite, a woman of my acquaintance who threw out a box of salt that had passed its magical day of reckoning.

Yes, you heard me--salt. That had "gone off".

I have discussed this phenomenon with many Swedes, and they believe that it springs from the Swedish belief in "the system", that authority knows best and should be followed without question. Even the "alternative" people in Sweden, the ones who pride themselves on their anti-tradition lifestyles, ropey locks and scuffed designer basketball shoes, mostly go along with this paranoia and feverishly dig through the bread shelves in order to locate the one loaf with that special extra day.

I find it astonishing that people trust this printed date more than their own finely honed senses which have been performing the task of determining if food has "gone off" for millions of years. Shake it, look at it, smell it, taste it, that's all you have to do, and it usually works great (except for the occasional unspottable and deadly bacteria that might dissolve your insides).

But this paranoia is good for me personally, in that I can stock up on "short date" items for half price and shove them in my freezer, where they will sit in chilly solitude as their best-before dates slide by and they remain perfectly safe and edible.

Story continues below…

Plus I can perform a nifty routine at parties, and disgust any room-full of natives by consuming something that went out months before, in the manner of a sword-swallower, only with a dry biscuit.

It's an impressive trick and, hey, I'm not dead yet.

Paddy's tips: Any big food shop in Stockholm will show you the classic best-before behaviour, but the best place to observe it is the dairy and bread sections. Try the slightly fancier food hall at NK in the city centre, or a regular supermarket like the Hemköp under Åhléns City. And keep your eyes open for those short-date items!

Paddy had been in Sweden so long that he no longer knows how to use the money back in his home country. You can follow his unrelenting whinging and moaning here.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

22:42 December 15, 2009 by Nora
Paddy! i really like your observations plus the sense of humor. Tack!
05:40 December 16, 2009 by Marc the Texan
My Swedish ex was fanatical about bread. Not so much the expiry, but the baked on date. She only wanted to buy bread that was baked that day. If it was baked yesterday then we weren't having it. When we were in the UK at Sainsbury's or the US at Publix she was shocked by some of the expiration dates that might go out to about 2 weeks and wondered what kind of chemicals were required to keep bread fresh for so long. I'd never thought much of before that, but now I pay attention to this kind of thing. Over the years that's just one small change to how I look at food. Small improvements over time has got me on mostly vegetarian and organic diet and steering clear of most processed foods. It took a long time, but the transition was painless.
08:15 December 16, 2009 by Céitinn
I have been in supermarkets in Sweden where bread has a label saying it was baked that day yet it was still partly frozen! The supermarkets love to freeze stuff then pretend it is fresh but they do not have the sense to defrost it before putting it out!
09:13 December 16, 2009 by Beavis
Well Im guilty of checking the dates on everything I buy at my local ICA. I think the supermarkets in Ireland were more into having fresh produce on the shelves from the 90s on, you dont really have to check for dates as they did a pretty good job of stock rotation.Some shops were offering if you found gone off produce you got your shopping half price etc. Wheras I find in Stockholm anyway they are putting out rotten stuff or almost rotten stuff all the time. Usually I check for mould and dodgy looking, then a quick check of the date. Couple of weeks ago I threw caution to the wind and bought some sauce in jar without checking (living on the edge eh!) Got home and opened it and was about to use and noticed a little mould on the top. Checked the best before date... Jan 2006.. But thats pretty normal from my local ICA, so we usually drive out to Vinn, whcih is a kinda Tesco type place where they actually bother there holes to put out a little stock, when its used replenish it, instead of the ICA way, which is to wheel your entire stock out in one go and have 10 times more than enyone every buys.
09:14 December 16, 2009 by the pigeon hunter
Céitinn, to their defence they could have baked it, shock frozen and shipped it. happens.
09:32 December 16, 2009 by spongepaddy
@Beavis - Good point, Jan 2006 is pushing it just a little.

@the pigeon hunter - But it's hardly "fresh" it was defrosted, right?
09:41 December 16, 2009 by fxrider
So this is the top news of the day?? Local needs to buckle up. And I don't get why this is even written. Should we hunt for expired food?
11:19 December 16, 2009 by Streja
It happens in Britain too. I know someone who throws perfectly good food away like that. It's not a "system" thing at all. Plus I also think it's a bit weird to have fresh things that are not really fresh.

I just bought a baking machine. Very sensible option.
12:13 December 16, 2009 by ladyluck37
We eat bread so fast that we never get near the expiration date, but milk is another story. I'm from the US where milk is sold by the gallon, so we are used to checking the expiration date--you don't want to have throw out such a large amount if you can't finish it. Usually back home the expiration date was always early (I'm sure to avoid people bringing it back to the store for a refund), but here I've found that with the exception of ONE liter I bought months ago, it never fails to go bad on exactly the date that is printed. One thing that annoys me and my fiance is the fact that we are "forced" to buy the more expensive organic milk (okay only by 2 kr, but still it adds up) because its expiration date is always a few days further out than the regular. This is undoubtedly because of what was mentioned in the article--people refuse to buy the milk with the closer dates, so liters and liters just sit there while everyone else buys from the other bin. We would buy the regular except we know that the two of us won't finish it. I don't understand why those who have more people in their family won't buy it when they know they will use it up in time!
13:02 December 16, 2009 by Julian Bevan
My girlfriend will happily cook meat that is just about to expire and leave it in the fridge until it gets mould on it, but will throw it out if it is one day over the expiry date before its cooked (chicken being the main thing she refuses to eat over the expiry date). Bread I just never tell her if its over the "best before" date. And milk...don't even go there. "The date only applies if you haven't opened the packet!!!" is her favourite line with dairy products. As if a tetrapak container will keep out the bacteria that's already in there? I have in the past been guilty of a "better safe than sorry" attitude and thrown out perfectly good food, but most of the time old sniff, look and taste test is fine. If it tastes odd, don't eat any more and throw it out.....or assume it's supposed to taste like that and eat it out of good old fashioned politeness!
16:01 December 16, 2009 by GefleFrequentFlyer
The behaviour probably stems from the social welfare concept. Swedes are ingrained to believe and trust these little check measures of information from the regulatory commissions because the goverment has been posistioned to protect them, because the people in general can't protect themselves from all the horrid things out in the world, like spoiled milk, when it's just something to cry over really.

Make no mistake, there is benefit to buying milk that exires next week, rather than tomorrow, but when it extends to bread, tins, etc, that's taking it to the extreme. I haven't noticed this behaviour in my recent trips to ICA or Willy's, but it does fit the mold... no pun intended!
17:16 December 16, 2009 by the pigeon hunter
when i was a student (in austria) my fellow partners in crime and i used to buy cut-price milk which had gone off the day before, shove it in the freezer and then live off of that for months on end.

the law was, as far as i understood it, that you could still sell it even though it had gone off, as long as you marked it accordingly and cut the price.

even though the amounts of money we saved werent that large it did make a difference for us then and it was perfectly safe. only difference was you didnt get your money back if it actually was bad, which never once happened to any of us.

i'm still team sniff and taste while my swedish husband will through out perfectly good anything because its best before date has expired. he will also through recently cooked food away if there is any left after we have finished a meal. he refuses to eat the same meal two days in a row, let alone the same day (say lunch AND dinner! outright scandalous!). do all swedes act like this or did i just end up with a very special specimen? ;)
09:03 December 17, 2009 by karex
@the pidgeon hunter

I think that you ended up with a special specimen, but not a "very" special specimen, ha-ha

My husband will eat leftovers. As a matter of fact, I always cook enough for four meals, that way we will both have lunch the following day - as opposed to spending fortunes in reaturants.

But it has taken him almost ten years to understand the concept of 1. Buy, 2. Stick in the freezer, 3. Best Before date is therefore irrelevant. Unless of course we're speaking of meat. No more than 1 month in the freezer (even at -18 degrees). That's because of freezer burn...
15:04 December 18, 2009 by tadchem
Some people tend naturally towards obsessive-compulsive behaviour. I was trained into it as it is a professional skill for an analytical chemist. Some OB-COMs will grasp at any straw over which to obsess. The British lexicographer Samuel Johnson is a cse in point.

OTOH, some of us acknowledge that the human immune system is a living system like a muscle, and apply the adage "use it or lose it." We routinely challenge our immune systems with expired foods, unsanitary tableware, and other practices (which I won't detail) that are considered unhygienic.

I suspect Paddy is just making a hasty generalization based on a few noticable people he has met in Sweden.
16:30 December 18, 2009 by spongepaddy
@tadchem - Actually I have been observing this in the Swedes since I got here (12 years ago) and it's well over half that do this, in varying degrees. Offer ANY Swede "old" milk and I'm pretty sure you will get the classic reaction more often than not!
18:53 December 19, 2009 by the pigeon hunter
omg, i m getting old. i just read back what i wrote and realised that i put "through" for every time in meant "throw". someone give me some valium, im hyperventilating.
23:15 December 19, 2009 by believe
I don't know if this is just a Swedish thing. I check dates on everything I buy! My friends all think it is an "experience" just to go to the store with me. I guess I want the best bang for my buck (dollar). I will reach to the back of a shelf to find the longest life possible. I'm really bad about this with medication. Of course medication can be harmful to your liver, kidney's, or other organs if taken past it's shelf "life". I won't eat anything past it's expiration date. I know this is crazy. I can honestly remember when canned food didn't even have an expiration date on them. However, now that they do, you know I won't eat them if they are even close to the date of no return.
07:04 December 21, 2009 by Mox Mox The Manburner
I´m a Swede and I do what Paddy says that we don´t do, that is, I smell the milk to see if it is still drinkable. If it´s a little off I use it to make pancakes. I also feel the bread with my hand to feel how soft it is, rather than watch the best before date.

Oh well, it´s just another foreigner complaing and making generalizations about us weird Swedes. It´s not like we haven´t it all before, sigh.
10:08 December 21, 2009 by spongepaddy
@Mox Mox The Manburner - Hey, I've been here 13 years, I'm hardly a foreigner any more! And if you think I moan a lot, you should just hear me complain about my own people, the Irish...

And keep smelling that milk!
10:20 December 21, 2009 by Beavis
@mox.. Go to any supermarket in Sweden almost any time of the day. I garuntee you there will be more people around the milk and dairy section than anywhere else in there. Theres always ay least 3 people taking an age to look at the milk, dates etc.
12:14 December 22, 2009 by Gröna gräset
Paddy's just follow this rule:

"Everything different than back home, I deem inferior."

You are just number 2085 person to follow this rule.

Congratulations. Number 3 000 I will give a price.

It will be one liter of Mellanmjölk - Expired....
16:30 December 27, 2009 by spongepaddy
Gröna gräset:

Oh no, somebody has twigged my system! Quick, must find new writing style...

And just for your own records, Sweden is superior to Ireland in many, many ways. And inferior in others. Just like everywhere. Try getting good brewed coffee in Ireland, for example - yuck.

Send over that expired milk, and god fortsättning!
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