Trader Joe's says product name changes aren't because of racism

We know where the road paved with good intentions leads. Nevertheless, Trader Joe's is taking that road in a confusing defense of its ethnic product names — even as it says it is discontinuing brands with names such as "Trader José's," "Trader Ming's," and "Trader Giotto's."

Trader Joe's announced about a week ago it would remove all ethnic variations of the Trader Joe's name on its products, which also include Arabian Joe and Trader Joe San. They appeared to be joining others in the food industry who are changing packaging and product names to remove racial stereotypes. The makers of Aunt Jemima and Miss Butterworth's syrups, Uncle Ben's rice, and Cream of Wheat all announced image makeovers in the wake of protests against systemic racism in the United States (via USA Today).

The Los Angeles Times and other media gave a high school student a lot of the credit for Trader Joe's decision. Briones Bedell, 17, had urged Trader Joe's in a Change.org petition to "remove racist branding and packaging." 

However, this week, Trader Joe's wanted to set the record straight. An announcement on the grocery chain's website said, "We want to be clear: We disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions."

"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," Trader Joe's added.

Trader Joe's recognized the problem with ethnic brand names a year ago

Trader Joe's most recent announcement has created confusion, however. Fox Business is reporting that the hip grocery chain could be keeping some of its ethnic brand names, highlighting this sentence from Trader Joe's: "We continue our ongoing evaluation, and those products that resonate with our customers and sell well will remain on our shelves." 

In fact, the branding update is actually old news. Nylon spoke to Trader Joe's a year ago and reported that the ethnic names were being phased out. "While these names had been considered a lighthearted designation of their cuisine, we recognize they may have been inconsistent with the welcoming, rewarding customer experience we strive to create every day," Trader Joe's director of public relations told Nylon. Food items with an international flavor that had been introduced over the prior two years did not get the ethnic variation on the name "Joe," the PR rep told Nylon. One year later, Trader Joe's has yet to announce when all ethnic labels will go away.

Customer opinions about the controversy vary. "I'm of Mexican heritage, and it's just that weird moment of othering," a Trader Joe's shopper told Nylon. "... It also doesn't lend to any authenticity because it's just a very Americanized thing to do." On the other hand, a customer expressed strong Trader Joe's loyalty to the Los Angeles Times: "I'm Italian, and I don't take offense to it. Trader Joe's can't do anything wrong."