Best-Before Hysteria

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)


18 thoughts on “Best-Before Hysteria

  1. 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. 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. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. […] Or about Swedish temporal cycles. And possibly my favourite, how Swedes are obsessed by the best-before dates on their food and drinks. And if you like those, there’s 353 other ones to enjoy too, but don’t eat them all at […]

  8. 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.

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