Best-Before Hysteria

11 Jul

When I met my Swedish ex in Ireland, I noticed something odd about her. She always carefully checked the labels and dates on food in the shop. I thought it was just a cute quirk, as I had rarely given those little dates much thought myself. If food smelled good, it was good; if it smelled funny, or had blue fluffy stuff on it, then it was bad.

But when I moved to Sweden, I was in for a shock – the entire country did the same. Swarms of grown-ups would wander around the shops, peering at the best-before dates and doing feverish calculations in their heads before buying anything. If I came home with something that was due to go “out” in a few days, then I was in bad domestic trouble. And any produce, even frozen or unopened, that had passed this mystical date would be chucked out as if it were coated in arsenic.

Stories about best-before hysteria are numerous over here, and I will tell only two of them:

1) Once my ex threw out salt—salt!!—that had gone past its best-before date. Now salt has been used in every culture for centuries to preserve food – conclusion, salt does not go off. But this did not stop her from throwing it out and starting a fight with me about it.

2) A friend of a friend—let us call him Larry—was making a cup of tea before he went out on the town. He checked the date on the milk, saw there was one day left, and took some milk. He came home a few hours later and made some more tea. But now the milk had gone off, as it was the next day, and Larry refused to drink it – the exact same milk he had used six hours earlier. He poured it down the sink, terrified of diseases, only hours after having had his tongue in the mouth of 3 or 4 strange girls, carrying probably more bacteria than live in his entire apartment.

These stories are not the exception – they are the rule in this peculiar country. I was in a shop that sells English stuff in Stockholm (called, usefully enough, the English Shop) a few days ago and noticed they were giving away crisps. I asked why, and the lady working there told me they had “gone out” and, even when they were free, the Swedes would not touch them. Now, show me any other country in the world where people will not take free stuff because of a little date printed on the packet.

Let us look at the phrase “best before” – or “bäst före” in Swedish. It implies that the product is BEST before the given date. It will probably be quite fine AFTER the date also, but it is 100% guaranteed to be BEST before it. Hence the words BEST BEFORE. It is not the “use by” date or the “shit after” date or the “throw me out please” date or the “warning! Deadly poison!” date – it is the BEST BEFORE date. And much more important than this magical date is the way in which the article has been stored both by you and in the shop: the outside temperature; the decade in which your fridge was installed; and when you actually opened the box.

I have gone blue in the face arguing this with Swedes, and now go out of my way to eat “old” food just to piss them off and show them that I will not die. Week-old milk, moldy bread, soup from the nineties – bring it on, baby!

And finally, just for the Swedes, here is how you use your enormous brain and fantastically complicated senses, evolved over millions of years, to determine if something if “good”, instead of using a little magic printed number on a box. Let us take milk as an example:

  1. Shake it.
  2. Look at it.
  3. Smell it.
  4. Taste it.

With these basic steps, you can determine if the milk (and most other things) really is “bad” and thereby save yourself a possible heart attack from too much pointless worry. Try it, and feel alive for the very first time.

/ paddy (best before 2053)


Posted by on July 11, 2006 in Uncategorised


18 responses to “Best-Before Hysteria

  1. ellala

    July 12, 2006 at 11:25 pm

    Jag brukar hälla ner mjölken i mitt té (använder bara mjölk i té, vilket innebär att jag sällan hinner använda upp den innan “bäst före” gått ut…) och kolla hur den reagarar. Om den blandar sig bra med vätskan = okej. Om den klumpar sig, lite eller mycket = inte okej.
    Fast nu klumpar den sig FÖRE bäst före-datumet. Dags för en ny kyl (den här är från 70-talet och jobbar för högtryck, alltid, utan att lyckas hålla sig tillräckligt kall).
    Saltet var lite hysteriskt ja… Men jag skulle aldrig, aldrig DRICKA mjölk som gått ut, bluärk, man är väl svensk!

  2. Conor

    July 13, 2006 at 4:56 am

    Our local corner shop is clearly the anti-Sweden. It’s virtually impossible to find anything that’s on sale within the use-by period; certainly not any of the many products on ‘special’ (i.e. at the regular price for normal shops but less than the exorbitant prices normally charged at said corner shop).

  3. Pat

    April 30, 2007 at 8:58 pm

    Stopped by after you left a comment on my blog about use-by dates. Great blog – am just about to add you to my links.

  4. paddyK

    May 6, 2007 at 11:14 pm

    Pat: Thank you kindly.

    Everybody else: apologies for reply 8 months too late…

  5. Carl

    August 4, 2007 at 5:49 pm

    FIndes der noget land der er mere autoritetstro end Sverige (jo måske Danmark).

    Hvad med at ikke bare blind følge datomærkningen. Smag på milken og dan dig selv en opfattelse om den kan drikkes eller ikke!. Emperien længe leve!

  6. H

    April 7, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    We through away to much food! It’s good though, since you can buy “old food” for a penny, but for the world its a shame, we throw away i dont know how many kg per person and year of eatble food.

    But Salt-my good! How can you be idealistic, solidaric and vegetarian and have such anxiety.

    We are obsessed by fresh fruit too, only green bananas and so on.

  7. paddyK

    April 7, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    H: About 240 kg of food per person per year. Not all by us, but by shops, bakeries etc. It’s very sick. We all need to accept “old” food, and get some pigs to eat the food that is actually bad, and recycle it into pork.

    We are a very very sad society.

  8. ullis

    September 10, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    A few years back when me and my friends were visiting a cabin far far away from a store, and with everyone either being intoxicated/hungover no one could drive to the store. Everyone in the cabin had the munchies (the purely non-marijuana type) but all that existed in the cabin was a unopened bag of crisps, that has passed three months earlier.

    No one dared taste it, apart from me. I happily yet a little frightened munched the whole bag of it during the evening. The others had to go without anything. Poor sods. I lived!

    • paddyK

      September 10, 2009 at 3:39 pm

      Swedes are completely fucked up when it comes to that. Too much total belief in rules and the state, I guess. Let’s repeat – it is BEST BEFORE, and NOT “GOES OUT ON”. Read the text!

    • Ellet

      February 22, 2013 at 3:56 pm

      If I answer my own comment then?

  9. anaglyph

    July 7, 2010 at 1:23 am

    My favourite thing is the exactness of the dates on some things. And also dates on stuff like Vegemite, which, as all Australians know, does not expire EVER.

  10. Ellet

    February 22, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Did you do anything to this post? Because it popped up in my RSS-reader and I was all “I do believe you have written about this exact topic before?”. I can also tell that I indeed commented on it back then.

  11. Ellet

    February 22, 2013 at 3:56 pm


  12. RBH

    February 23, 2013 at 12:42 am

    Erm, why did this just show up in Google Reader? Is there a time warp lurking nearby?

    • paddyK

      February 24, 2013 at 3:51 pm

      I posted the link on Facebook as part of a discussion. Maybe that short-circuited the Internet’s brain.

  13. Maddy

    March 24, 2014 at 9:22 am

    A little something I wrote inspired by your post:

  14. all hackz

    April 18, 2014 at 12:14 pm

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