Trader Joe’s is trading out the culturally-specific branding on its international food products in favor of the regular “Joe.”
The California-based grocery store chain has long used playful twists on its company name for its lines of foreign-inspired cuisine. For example, “Trader Jacque” can be found on labels for its French desserts, “Trader Ming” to market its Chinese foods, “Trader Giotto” for its Italian products, and “Trader José” for Mexican dishes.
But now the company finds itself in the spotlight after an online petition urging Trader Joe’s to “remove racist packing” from its products started making the rounds on social media. The petition, which was started by high school senior Briones Bedell two weeks ago, states that the company “labels some of its ethnic foods with modifications of ‘Joe’ that belies a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes.” At the time of this writing, the petition had garnered more than 3,000 signatures.
According to the New York Times, Trader Joe’s had been planning to phase out the labels anyway.
“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,” said Kenya Friend-Daniel, the company’s national director of public relations. “With this in mind, we made the decision several years ago to use only the Trader Joe’s name on our products moving forward.”
In the weeks of protests and rioting following the death of George Floyd, many companies have announced changes to their packaging. Aunt Jemima pancake syrup, Uncle Ben’s rice, Dreyer’s Eskimo Pies, and Cream of Wheat have all pledged to remove the trademark images and brand names they say are culturally or racially insensitive.
But the petition goes further, pointing out that company founder Joe Coulombe got his inspiration for the store’s nautical theme from a book called “White Shadows in the South Seas" and a ride on Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, both of which, says Bedell, has received criticism for “romanticizing Western Imperialism and fetishizing non-Western peoples.”
According to Bedell, the book explores the dark history of exploitation and enslavement of 19th and 20th-century trading companies in the South Pacific, which are still suffering “because of how traders ravaged their peoples, their societies, and their natural resources.” She adds that while the book “calls out” the abuses of these trading companies, the grocery store still incorporates the word “Trader” in its name.
“It leaves the question: What in particular about this book inspired the company?” she asks.
Indeed, with this line of logic, the rebranding of a few international products seems hardly sufficient to atone for such a sordid history of perpetuating racism. Perhaps it would be best to cancel Trader Joe’s entirely, just to be safe.