Trader Joe's Now Says It Won't Remove Stereotypical Branding from International Foods
In early July, a California high school student launched a petition encouraging Trader Joe's to change the names of some of its private-label products, citing the reductive stereotypes that had been used on the packaging.
"The grocery chain labels some of its ethnic foods with modifications of 'Joe' that belies a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes," 17-year-old Briones Bedell wrote on Change.org. "For example, 'Trader Ming’s' is used to brand the chain’s Chinese food, 'Arabian Joe' brands Middle Eastern foods, 'Trader José' brands Mexican foods, 'Trader Giotto’s' is for Italian food, and 'Trader Joe San' brands their Japanese cuisine."
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Bedell said that she believed that the branding "didn’t seem to serve any real purpose," other than reinforcing reductive tropes. "If you’re paying attention to these issues of protecting cultural content in general, you’ll see that there’s this growing movement and this heightened sense of awareness to the value of repatriating cultural content back to source communities, of allowing communities access to their content institutions in protecting intellectual property rights," she said.
"While the Trader Joe’s thing is a little different, I think that the central issue at the heart of all this is that when any community isn’t allowed control over their representation, harmful stereotypes and caricatures are allowed to be perpetuated."
And Trader Joe's seemed to acknowledge that—at least at first. A spokesperson for the specialty chain said that it was already in the process of rebranding some of those items as simply 'Trader Joe's." "While this approach to product naming may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness, we recognize that it may now have the opposite effect—one that is contrary to the welcoming, rewarding customer experience we strive to create every day," Kenya Friend-Daniel, Trader Joe's national director of public relations, said, before adding that changing these labels was "important work."
But in a whiplash-inducing redirect, Trader Joe's has since said that it would not be changing any of those product names and, on top of that, the chain says that it no longer has a problem with those items at all. "A few weeks ago, an online petition was launched calling on us to 'remove racist packaging from [our] products.' Following were inaccurate reports that the petition prompted us to take action. We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions," the company said in a statement.
"Decades ago, our Buying Team started using product names, like Trader Giotto’s, Trader José’s, Trader Ming’s, etc. We thought then—and still do—that this naming of products could be fun and show appreciation for other cultures [...] Recently we have heard from many customers reaffirming that these name variations are largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended—as an attempt to have fun with our product marketing. We continue our ongoing evaluation, and those products that resonate with our customers and sell well will remain on our shelves."
First, it seems like those 'inaccurate reports' about changes to the branding came directly from the company's own spokesperson. "With this in mind, we made the decision several years ago to use only the Trader Joe’s name on our products moving forward," Friend-Daniel told The New York Times. "Packaging for a number of the products has already been changed, but there’s a small number of products in which the packaging is still going through the process."
It's also interesting that Trader Joe's said that it "[does] not make decisions based on petitions," while simultaneously implying that it does make decisions based on positive customer feedback.
Food & Wine has reached out to Trader Joe's for additional comment.