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.

The day the milk stood still

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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OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.