The day the milk stood still

The day the milk stood still
It's not really the government that runs Sweden. Nor is it the police, the Royal Family or the largely interchangeable bearded dudes from Abba. It is, oddly enough, the people who print the little best-before dates on all food and drink items.

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.

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.

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