Essays The rise of the Swedish welfare state Introducing modern food practices into the modern food system

This article highlights the development of modern food practices and food regulations in Sweden with special emphasis on food safety and food security from the late 19th century to 1950s. The results are linked to the wider discussion about modernization and societal change in Sweden and includes industrial organization in the agro-food sector, technological development, and the reality experienced by the population during decades that were heavily influenced by the consequences of two world wars and the rise of the welfare state.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2022:1-2, pp 156-164
Published on on June 22, 2022

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This article highlights the development of modern food practices and food regulations in Sweden with special emphasis on food safety and food security from the late 19th century to 1950s. The results are linked to the wider discussion about modernization and societal change in Sweden and includes industrial organization in the agro-food sector, technological development, and the reality experienced by the population during decades that were heavily influenced by the consequences of two world wars and the rise of the welfare state. 


Food safety, food security, food regulations, Sweden.

Historically, cereals and fatty fish like herring were key components in Swedish diets. Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Thus, meat and other expensive foodstuffs were not available to large parts of the population. As Sweden became industrialized, a new dietary norm became established, which was heavily influenced by state actions. Developments in nutritional physiology deeply impacted food practices and national policies. Early findings in nutritional physiology indicated that a rich and balanced diet, in which animal-based fat played a key role, was advantageous for human health. Consequently, Swedish husmanskost [traditional home cooking], was adopted. Husmanskost consisted of simple dishes based on inexpensive ingredients that were available locally, for example, potatoes, peas, cabbages, herring, bread and cheap meat cuts. It was used as a social marker to differentiate ordinary people from the upper classes. Some examples of old husmankost dishes are lye fish, cabbage pudding and pea soup. In the late 19th century, husmanskost was adopted as the official dietary norm by public institutions such as hospitals, workhouses, prisons and after 1937 it was also used in public schools. The concept of husmanskost eventually spilled over to private households. Meat, milk and other animal-based products were important ingredients in husmanskost and became a pillar of the Swedish diet.

State involvement regarding how food should be produced and consumed is an important element in Sweden’s modern food history. Food policies included a range of regulations that targeted all aspects of food. State involvement also reached deeply into private kitchens and influenced what and how much households should consume. Historically, food production and food consumption have developed under the influence of formal food regulations and production and consumption practices that often emerge through the interaction of various stakeholders in society. Many studies have shown that it is particularly important to focus on the articulation of the institutional infrastructure, comprising food legislation and modern practices, supported by public food agencies, as well as by informal institutions when the industrialization of agriculture, food production and modern consumption are in focus.

The purpose of this essay is in line with previous research and highlights some of the processes leading to how food sovereignty was achieved in Sweden. Special emphasis has been placed on the development of food safety and food security regulations. In addition, some insights are included into how the two world wars and technical development influenced Swedish diets.

The main sources of this essay are public documents, regulatory and legislative documents, data gathered from the Stockholmskällan digital archive, as well as previous studies. The essay is organized chronologically with a main emphasis on the first half of the 20th century.

Agriculture, crisis and restructuring 1890–1950 – a background

You cannot discuss the modern history of food in Sweden without mentioning agricultural regulations. In the second half of the 19th century, British demand for food staples such as butter, pork and oats stimulated Swedish exports. To a large extent, Swedish agriculture and food exports became dependent on the British market. But when other countries could offer less costly options, Sweden lost its market. This fueled an economic crisis as the domestic market did not have the purchasing power to replace exports. Oat exports had completely  ceased by 1880 and butter exports, which had accounted for 10% of Sweden’s total exports in 1890, had fallen to 5% by 1913. Moreover, during the First World War, food imports decreased due to a trade blockade, inflation rose and between 1914 and 1919 food prices more than doubled, causing domestic demand to fall. This exposed farmers and the emerging food industry to dramatic price fluctuations.

The crisis highlighted above was one of the reasons behind the establishment of agricultural regulations in Sweden. Another reason was the recession following the stock market collapse in 1929. Unemployment rose, prices fell, and the Social Democratic Party searched for ways to support the unemployed. This resulted in an agreement between the Agrarian Party and the Social Democratic Party that secured financial support to agriculture and food producers in exchange for support for legislation that enabled the establishment of unemployment benefits for workers. The agreement led to the regulation of agriculture, which included subsidies, price regulations, export equalization and import restrictions. In addition, farmer’s organizations committed to help reduce the number of food processing companies.

After the Second World War, farm structure became incorporated into agro-food regulations when the 1947 Agricultural Bill was passed. The bill targeted three main areas: 1) Farmers’ income level should be equal to that of an industry worker. The government committed to achieve this goal by maintaining agricultural prices at a high (if necessarily artificial) level; 2) agriculture was rationalized and productivity targets set. The ideal farm was defined as a family farm of 10—20 hectares (called “basic farms”). Productivity gains were supported through state loans, subsidies and counselling; 3) increased productivity in “basic farms” was expected to solve food security deficiencies. Following the 1947 bill, total agricultural production increased to levels that were far above self-sufficiency, while the number of agricultural holdings decreased dramatically. Thus, agricultural regulations helped shape the structure of the food industry. This facilitated the implementation of food hygiene and food security measures and regulations.

Figure 1. Milestones in the development of meat regulations and control authorities. Source: Paulina Rytkönen, 2022.

Figure 1. Milestones in the development of meat regulations and control authorities. Source:
Paulina Rytkönen, 2022.

Food safety – examples from meat and dairy products

One of the first modern food policies was the establishment of food hygiene legislation. Historically, it was relatively easy to avoid food that could make people sick. The variation of food was relatively limited and most food was produced and consumed in the same household. When industrialization and urbanization gained momentum (in the late 19th century), food production and elaboration moved out of households and into emerging food enterprises. The previously inherited and experience-based know-how, and the personal control over food quality, shifted from a personal to a societal, institutional, and business level. Food quality and particularly food hygiene gained a wider and more intricate meaning as the food chain became more complex. Food hygiene control was established through the establishment of a legislative framework and new public authorities tasked with verifying that food enterprises followed the law. Two such authorities that played a key role in the development and articulation of food safety regulations were the National Medical Board (Medicinalstyrelsen), established in 1878 and the Public Health Institute (Folkhälsoinstitutet), established in 1938.

Figure 2. Milestones in the development of dairy regulations and control authorities. Source: Paulina Rytkönen, 2022.

Figure 2. Milestones in the development of dairy regulations and control authorities.
Source: Paulina Rytkönen, 2022.

Meat regulations

The control of meat products and milk and dairy products in particular were essential to monitor. Some diseases that were transferred to humans via contaminated animal foodstuffs caused serious illness. This endangered exports and domestic consumption. Thus, already in the 19th century, measures were taken to avoid trichinella, TBC, typhus and other bacteria.

It was difficult to implement safety regulations, particularly when health controls were being developed. Many slaughterhouses had sub-standard premises and practices. The health authorities raided slaughterhouses and when one facility was closed, it was replaced by another one.

Police reports in the City Archive of Stockholm (Stockholms Stads Digitala arkiv, Stockholmskällan) bear witness to the discovery of rats and rat droppings, spider’s webs, dust, rotten food, blackening dough, sub-standard and dirty facilities and utensils, and much more. Moreover, food control also included aspects of animal welfare. A summary of work by the health authorities from 1878—1928 states that animals were sometimes slaughtered in cruel conditions, causing them great suffering.

Food control became increasingly important for the meat industry. In 1931 there were 586 slaughterhouses in Sweden. Some of them were municipally owned, some were privately owned and some were cooperatives. In 1950 the number of slaughterhouses had been reduced and cooperatives dominated the market. Hygiene regulations helped to rationalize the market because many enterprises, particularly private enterprises, could not comply with the health legislation. This also indirectly influenced the rise of the cooperative movement, as cooperative owners could share the economic burden imposed by the hygiene regulations. During the first decades of the 20th century, most slaughterhouses were small and privately owned enterprises. However, as legislative requirements increased, it became necessary to strive for economies of scale, resulting in larger slaughterhouses. Cooperatives as an organizational form helped reduce the business risk for each individual member and helped decrease the information gap that individual enterprises faced when the market became more organized.

Dairy regulations

Food safety regulations for milk and dairy products also developed rapidly between the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Dairy products are perishable and sensitive to bacterial growth. Consumption of infected milk spread a number of serious diseases, for example, TBC, listeria, brucellosis. These diseases needed to be eradicated in order to protect the population, especially children. Improving milk quality was also important from a food security perspective. This is how the authorities defined the role of milk:

With consideration to the versatility of milk and in some cases its irreplaceability as eatable, a prominent desire from a nutritional perspective is that milk consumption in our country should not only be maintained at its current level but, rather increased. Milk is relatively inexpensive in relation to its nutritional value and from a dietary point of view, the importance of which, not least in the often-one-sided diet of the wider layers of the population, should not be overlooked. Through extensive propaganda and information activities that have been conducted in our country, especially in the last decade [1930s], the great value of milk as a food and the importance of including it as an ingredient in the daily diet should increasingly become part of our general consciousness.

Legislation, and the 1937 dairy bill in particular, played a key role in eliminating health risks related to milk consumption. The dairy bill included compulsory pasteurization, modern sewage treatment plants, fully tiled dairy rooms and improved hygiene practices in dairies. To comply with the dairy bill, most dairies had to make substantial investments, but since the industry was still recovering from the export crises, the adoption of the 1937 dairy bill helped rationalize the industry and reduce the number of dairies. In most cases, the Swedish Dairy Association (Svenska Mejeriernas Riksförening) merged with hundreds of cooperatives after 1937, while many other dairies shut down. Over a five-year period (1935—1940) the number of dairies decreased from 1,576 to 984. And while the number of cooperatives dropped from 723 to 719, the number of private dairies decreased from 853 to 265. Consequently, hygiene and safety regulations played a significant role in the development of the dairy industry.

Another milestone was the professionalization of the veterinary profession. Through the establishment of the National Veterinary Board (NVB, Statens Veterinärmedicinska Anstalt), it was possible to achieve better resource allocation. The NVB developed the expertise to address problems that were specifically related to animal production. Another key authority was the National Institute for Public Health (Folkhälsoinstitutet). This agency played a key role in supporting the development of what eventually became the first National Food Bill in 1951 (Matvarustadga, Proposition 1951:63).

Food security

Public views about nutrition were cemented already in the 1930s when nutrition became part of general Swedish welfare policies. This was in line with the active state involvement in the welfare of the population. The general formula for achieving food sovereignty and enhancing the nutritional value of food was to improve the living standards of the working class and secure real wage increases through general national wage bargaining.

The vitamin doctrine, developed in the 1910s, led to an increased awareness of the benefits of vitamins, amino acids and minerals. This influenced the outline of nutrition policies, guidelines and recommendations. A key concern of the state was that a poor diet could affect the working ability of the population. Thus, the state actively attempted to increase its knowledge about the consumption habits of the population. Several studies were conducted in order to understand the correlation between income level and diet. A general conclusion was that poverty in combination with family size were the underlying causes behind who consumed what and how much was consumed by each family member. Food consumption, particularly in rural areas and in Northern Sweden, was based on cereals and dairy products. The diet was basic and one-sided, lacking in mineral salts and vitamins and contributed to tooth decay, rickets and anemia. In urban environments, working class people lived in crowded environments in which tuberculosis, measles and rickets thrived. Children were the most vulnerable. A simple case of measles often led to other more serious diseases because the immune system was weakened by a poor diet.

By the end of the 1930s the State Institute for Public Health and the Swedish Co-operative Union (Kooperativa Förbundet) conducted the study 27 000 Meals (27 000 måltider). This was a milestone as it generated new knowledge about consumption habits and differences in food consumption in families. Women in working class families had “a substantially worse diet than others”. Adult (working) males ate cooked meals, small children ate porridge and gruel and older children ate sandwiches, while women often settled for coffee and sandwiches.

One of the strengths of the study is that it was able to establish what people actually meant when they referred to lunch, breakfast, dinner or coffee. This allowed the nutritional value of food to be clarified. Eggs, fruit and vegetables were virtually absent from children’s and women’s diets.

Historically, butter was an important source of fat, although working class people could rarely afford it. The lack of fat led to the promotion of margarine. However, it was not easy to introduce margarine into the Swedish diet. One of the arguments against margarine was that it could lead to food adulteration. Early methods of producing margarine were based on mixing slaughter residuals (lard) with skimmed milk. After the First World War, vegetable oils became more available, leading to an improvement in the quality of margarine. With vegetable oils, the sensory quality of margarine became more stable, it was easier to spread and less expensive than butter. Some arguments in the public debate raised concerns about the nutritional value of margarine. The lack of sunlight in Sweden during the winter, together with malnourished mothers, caused rickets in children. Although no statistics are available on the occurrence of rickets, the problem was substantial enough to raise concerns among decision makers. In the public inquiry 1937:51, which proposed to legislate in favor of vitaminized foods, an important argument was that adding vitamins to margarine would increase its nutritional value, thereby helping to eradicate rickets.

The concern about children’s health also included school meals for working class children. In 1912, only 2 300 of the 26 000 children enrolled in schools in Stockholm benefitted from free school meals. Due to the food situation in poor families, Fredrik Ström, a prominent Social Democrat, submitted a proposal to increase the city’s budget for school meals from 70 000 Swedish crowns in 1912 (equivalent to 3  563  249 Swedish crowns in 2021) to 105 000 in 1913 (equivalent to 5  329  644 Swedish crowns in 2021). He argued that:

Even during normal times, in a city of Stockholm’s size, there are many families in which the children are never properly fed; in working-class families with high numbers of children in particular, starvation is ever present.

The number of school meals gradually increased and in 1947 all children in Sweden were granted free school meals. This was expected to alleviate the economic burden for families comprising many children; facilitate the workload of housewives; improve the nutritional status of all children. School meals were also necessary because the state considered that working-class households lacked knowledge about the importance of consuming versatile and nutritious food.

Another significant measure to improve people’s diets was to inform and educate them about how to create a diet following the vitamin doctrine. Milk was identified as crucial because it was inexpensive and contained several nutrients that were difficult and costly to obtain through other foods. Encouraged by the state, in 1923 the dairy industry established the “Milk propaganda” association (Mjölkpropagandan). The association lobbied the state to introduce milk in schools, as well as inform the public about its benefits. Influenced by this milk propaganda, milk became woven into the national identity and was one of the most emblematic symbols of the modern Swedish food system. Milk consumption helped to improving food security, particularly after pasteurization was made compulsory in 1937. Diseases such as tuberculosis and rickets virtually disappeared.

The process behind how Sweden achieved food safety and food security are closely connected to what we now describe as social engineering. However, this topic has not been fully explored.   

Figure 3. The development of refrigeration technologies – timeline. Source: Paulina Rytkönen, 2022.

Figure 3. The development of refrigeration technologies – timeline. Source: Paulina Rytkönen, 2022.

Food rationing – with Stockholm as an example

Even though Sweden was not actively involved in the First and Second World Wars, it was indirectly affected by disruptions to trade flows of foodstuffs and inputs that were essential to food production. Sweden was ill-equipped to meet trade challenges, particularly during the First World War. In fact, the two wars considerably delayed the fulfillment of Sweden’s national food security goal. However, there is a considerable difference in the situations that prevailed in the respective world wars.

During the First World War, most Swedes were poor and poor people would occasionally starve. In 1917, a trade blockade affected the import of staple foods, resulting in the state rationing food. In 1917, the lack of food led to many famine revolts across the country. The discontent of the poor shook society to its core. In Stockholm, the 1917 mass protests came to be known as the “potato rattles”, as poor housewives, after a very cold winter and almost three years of food rationing, rallied thousands of people in protest against rising food prices and the insufficient food supply.

The hardships experienced by people did not go unnoticed. One of the main headlines of Dagens Nyheter (an important Swedish newspaper) on April 26, 1917 read: “Bread to people in need. An appeal for solidarity”. The appeal for solidarity was signed by many well-known experts from the National Food Commission (Statens Livsmedelskommission) and the main message asked households to be frugal in the use of rationing coupons. As highlighted in the previous section, a key issue behind the far-reaching consequences of food rationing was poverty.

The authorities acted to counter food shortages through initiatives at both a regional and a local level. One strategy was to promote rabbit breeding. The first protocol of the Rabbit Breeding Committee (Livsmedelskommissionens Kaninuppfödningskommitté) in Stockholm on April 3, 1917 includes information about the establishment of rabbit farms and the decision to purchase breeding animals. Rabbits became an important source of animal proteins at a time when other food was being rationed. In only two years, 166 rabbit farms were established in Stockholm. Most important, rabbits could be bred in urban environments and were a perfect food during times of rationing. Moreover, the consumption of rabbit meat met with no resistance because other forms of animal protein were scarce, and also because plenty of sources indicate that small game such as hare was part of the diet in rural areas.

Additional measures to improve food security was to grow food in parks in Stockholm. Cabbages, potatoes and carrots were some of the main staples to be grown in the city. People helped each other by posting notices in local newspapers and writing cookbooks on the art of “crisis food preparation”. The most important recommendation was to replace flour with potatoes.

During the Second World War, Sweden had emergency food stocks. Nevertheless, food consumption was negatively impacted by a combination of a trade blockade and poor harvests. The Government Food Commission was responsible for the implementation of food rationing. In its analysis about production from 1939—1944 it concluded that harvests were around 80% compared to a regular year. Unusually cold winters between 1939 and 1942 negatively affected output. Moreover, there was a reduction in the import of grain seeds. The production and consumption of beef and pork were reduced due to a shortage of fodder. Some desperate measures were adopted, for example, the authorities organized the collection of household food waste to provide pig breeders with fodder. Technologies that helped to preserve food, for example, powdered milk, made a breakthrough when a study of the nutritional content and value of powdered milk using conscripts stationed in the northern parts of the country showed positive results.

Moreover, in 1943, the state adopted regulation 1943:774 concerning a system for income-based food discounts that enabled the poorest segments of the population to utilize their food rations. Most food products were subject to rationing during the war. During the war the state promoted the home cultivation of food and the population was informed about how to preserve and make use of the available resources. Information disseminators were employed and brochures such as “Harvest and winter preservation of garden products” (Skörda och bevara trädgårdsprodukter) and “Wise preservation” (Förståndig förvaring) were distributed to all households. The combination of all these measures helped the state take control of the food system, although the population’s food intake was still insufficient. On average, calory intake had reduced by 7% during the war years compared to the 1930s.

Technologies and knowledge

An additional key element of food safety and food security is food preservation. The Swedish state played a key role in promoting technological development at an industrial level and informing households. This is a vast area of research and will only be touched upon briefly here.

The state had already developed industrial policies for multiple industries before the 1930s. In the area of food, the involvement of the state went hand in hand with the adoption of the vitamin doctrine and state-led efforts to diversify the working-class diet. Before the 1950s, state policies also focused on modernizing food preservation in households. Such efforts also coincided with a period in which there were increasingly more housewives (1920s to 1960s). An important ingredient of food preservation was sugar. When sugar production was industrialized through the establishment of refineries and the large-scale production of sugar beets, the price of sugar dropped, making sugar available to working-class households.

The state helped to educate housewives on how to use sugar for preservation, which also positively influenced the number of calories that were consumed. The state supported information campaigns, research and the establishment of household schools. The latter were an important means of modernizing food preservation, food elaboration and food consumption at a household level. The recipes included cooked fruit and berry juice saft [squash], marmalade and compotes. Through this strategy, households were invited to take advantage of the berries, fruits and other resources that were available for free.

At an industrial level a key event was the foundation of the SIK [Swedish Institute for Food Preservation Research (Svenska Institutet för Konserveringsforskning) in 1946. The SIK existed as an independent state agency and could therefore closely collaborate with the industry to develop industrial food preservation technologies and modern food products.

Refrigeration as an example

Refrigeration and freezing technologies were developed for both industrial use and for households. After the introduction of freon in 1920, it became possible to produce modern refrigerators. It took a long time before all households could afford a refrigerator. However, many households had ice cabinets that were cooled down with large ice blocks that were extracted from frozen lakes and rivers.

Final remarks

Over a period of less than 100 years, Sweden embarked on a journey in which the production, elaboration and consumption of food moved from the sphere of rural and agricultural households to industries located in urban areas. In 1950, the dietary norm, comprising “Swedish home cooking” had become the dominant force. The 1950s are often described as the golden years of Swedish industry. After the war, Sweden was able to benefit from increased production, as well as increased exports and industrial productivity. The latter led to higher wages in real terms for workers and a general improvement in the standard of living of the population. An animal-based diet, which the state had so eagerly pursued, became a reality for most people. Sunday roast, pork leg with root mash, pickled herring or Falu sausage and fried potatoes were part of the diet of most Swedes. Milk became the dominant milk-time drink. The national diet had changed, largely influenced by active measures adopted by the state.


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  46. Thorell, När sockret blev vardagsmat.

  47. Åsa Broberg and Birgitta Sandström, ”Hushållningens pedagogiska innehåll – en analys av ICA-Kuriren 1942” [The Educational Content of the Household – An Analysis of ICA Kuriren] Historisk Tidskrift, vol. 138 no. 2 (2018): 255—285.

  48. Karin Mårdsjö, Hemkonservering: en studie av värderingar, språkbruk och bildutformning i husliga handböcker från svenskt 1930-, 40- och 50-tal. [Home Conservation: A Study of Values, Language Use And Image Design in Household Handbooks from Swedish] Rapport no. 5 (Studentlitteratur, 2001), 1—75.

  49. Gustav Holmberg, ”Vetenskap och livsmedelsindustri: Svenska institutet för konserveringsforskning” [Science and Food Industry: Swedish Institute for Preservation Studies] Lychnos, Årsbok för idé- och lärdomshistoria, (Linköping: Linköping University Press,2005), 199—218.
  • by Paulina Rytkönen

    Associated Professor in Economic History and Senior Lecturer in Business Studies at Södertörn University. Her research focuses on a wide variety of historical and contemporary topics concerning global, national, and local food systems, rural entrepreneurship, innovations, self-employment and economic growth in rural areas.

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