Trader Joe’s says product labels targeted by petition aren’t racist

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Trader Joe’s issued a secondary response to a petition claiming its product labels are racist, instead saying it does not change its naming conventions over online petitions asking them to do so.

Trader Joe’s issued a secondary response to a petition claiming its product labels are racist, instead saying it does not change its naming conventions over online petitions asking them to do so.

Photo: Chris Pizzello /Associated Press

Photo: Chris Pizzello /Associated Press

Trader Joe’s issued a secondary response to a petition claiming its product labels are racist, instead saying it does not change its naming conventions over online petitions asking them to do so.

Trader Joe’s issued a secondary response to a petition claiming its product labels are racist, instead saying it does not change its naming conventions over online petitions asking them to do so.

Photo: Chris Pizzello /Associated Press

Trader Joe’s says product labels targeted by petition aren’t racist

Following some criticism from a petition deeming product names as “racist” a few weeks ago, Trader Joe’s has since offered some insight into its product-naming process, stating that it disagreed with the claim that its products should be construed as racist.

“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,” reads a statement posted to the Trader Joe’s website on July 24. “We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions.

“We make decisions based on what customers purchase, as well as the feedback we receive from our customers and Crew Members,” the statement continued. “If we feel there is need for change, we do not hesitate to take action.”

The company went on to explain that it “constantly reevaluate[s]” its products in order to “ensure it makes sense for our business and aligns with customers’ expectations.” In a product evaluation two years ago, the company stated it had made the decision to discontinue items and product names that weren’t connecting with customers or did not sell well. (“It’s kind of what we do,” the website noted.)

The grocery chain also reiterated the fact that its product names — citing Trader Giotto’s, Trader Ming’s and even a mathematical theory-themed product name, “Avocado’s Number” — were meant to “be fun and show appreciation for other cultures.”

Previously, in response to initial requests for comment when the petition first circulated online, Trader Joe’s took a different tone on the product names, at first stating that the naming conventions “may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness” and acknowledging that it may not be how it’s taken today.

“… [W]e 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, national director of public relations for Trader Joe’s, in that earlier statement to SFGATE.

“With this in mind, we made the decision several years ago to use only the Trader Joe’s name on our products moving forward,” the statement continued. “Since then, we have been in the process of updating older labels and replacing any variations with the name Trader Joe’s, and we will continue do so until we complete this important work.”

Briones Bedell, 17, of Oakley is the author of that original online petition, and in an interview with The Chronicle detailed some of her reasoning behind the petition.

“… 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,” Bedell told The Chronicle. “I think we can derive and apply some of the lessons learned within the protecting intangible cultural contents sphere to other instances of cultural insensitivity, as in the case of Trader Joe’s branding of ethnic foods with these names like Trader Ming’s, Trader Jose, Thai Joe’s, etc.”

“I felt that the branding was insensitive, and when you put it in this larger context of the Trader Joe’s corporate brand philosophy, it becomes more apparent that there’s an actual issue of systemic or institutional racism rather than just tone deafness,” she later added. (The full interview can be read here.)

Bedell addressed Trader Joe’s initial response to the petition in her own words here, as well as made comments on the company’s latest statement, typifying the responses as “contradictory” and asking that the company to “clarify which ethnically branded products will be modified.”

Indeed, in its post from last week, Trader Joe’s made no mention on the progress made or future plans to get rid of specific product names, instead saying that it heard from customers that the product names were “largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended­ — as an attempt to have fun with our product marketing.”

The full, most recent statement from Trader Joe’s can be found here.

Dianne de Guzman is the Food + Drink Editor at SFGATE. Email: dianne.deguzman@sfgate.com