Trader Joe’s is denying accusations that it has racist product labels.
The food retail chain has put out a statement that apparently contradicts what its spokesperson told reporters earlier in July.
“A few weeks ago, an online petition was launched calling on us to remove racist packaging from [our] products,” the new statement reads. “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.”
An online petition targeted such Trader Joe’s items as "Trader Ming's," "Arabian Joe" and "Trader José" as among the main products that needed to change. According to the petition, "The grocery chain labels some of its ethnic foods with modifications of "Joe" that belies a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes." The petition had almost 5,000 signatures as of Thursday morning.
Previous news reports indicated that Trader Joe’s would move to change the offending labelling.
“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,” company spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel had told the Los Angeles Times.
That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, though Trader Joe’s, in its new statement, left the door open for change. “We make decisions based on what customers purchase, as well as the feedback we receive from our customers and crew members. If we feel there is need for change, we do not hesitate to take action,” the statement reads.
“We constantly reevaluate what we are doing to ensure it makes sense for our business and aligns with customers’ expectations,” Trader Joe’s said. “A couple years ago we asked our buying team to review all our products to see if we needed to update any older packages, and also see if the associated brands developed years ago needed to be refreshed. We found that some of the older names or products just weren’t connecting or selling very well; so, they were discontinued. It’s kind of what we do.”
The food retailer, however, also defended the product labeling that is the subject of the online petition drive.
“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,” Trader Joe’s said. “For example, we named our Mexican beer ‘Trader José Premium’ and a couple guacamole products are called ‘Avocado’s Number’ in a kitschy reference to a mathematical theory. These products have been really popular with our customers, including some budding mathematicians.”
Trader Joe’s added that the names in question are popular with shoppers.
“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.”
This article first appeared in sister publication Progressive Grocer.