High school senior Briones Bedell's Change.org petition to remove racist packaging from Trader Joe's products reached a high point over the weekend. The petition asks that the California-based grocer remove "racist branding and packaging" that "belies a narrative of exoticism and perpetuates harmful stereotypes."
The packaging in question includes those of popular products like Trader Ming's Kung Pao Chicken or Trader Giotto's Traditional Marinara Sauce, where the brand ethnicized its name to reflect the culture of origin of a given product. Asian products were labeled Trader Ming, Italian products Trader Giotto, Trader José for Latinx-inspired products, and Arabian Joe for Middle-Eastern foods.
A Trader Joe's spokesperson told SF Gate, "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," adding that the company had, in fact, decided several years ago to only use the Trader Joe's name on products moving forward. "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 to do so until we complete this important work," the spokesperson explained.
The petition currently demands that Trader Joe's provide a concrete timeline for when the labels will be updated. The company maintains that it is unable to provide a specific deadline. Refinery29 reached out to Trader Joe's to follow up and will update this story with any new information.
In the meantime, this gives us an occasion to take a closer look at Trader Joe's branding. Where does this idea of a trader come from? The petition pointed out that according to the brand's origin story web page, the original Trader Joe's store had a nautical theme, and its employees were described as "traders on the high seas." According to the story, "At the time, [founder] Joe [Coulombe] had been reading a book called White Shadows in the South Seas and he’d been to the Disneyland Jungle Trip ride."
It's also worth noting the key role Trader Joe's has played in the gentrification of ethnic foods, often stimulating a demand that results in a surge in prices across the market and makes them inaccessible to the people of the cultures from which they were taken. This happened with quinoa, and it's likely to happen to cassava. It's important to question narratives that glorify the navigators and traders of yore, from Christopher Columbus to Trader Joe.