US natural foods retailer Trader Joe’s has been pulled up by anti-racism campaigners over labelling of its own-label international food lines. 

Since its early days (the Monrovia, California-headquartered company was founded in 1958 and currently operates over 500 stores nationwide), Trader Joe’s packaging has featured tweaks of its brand name to evoke a product’s origin – giving rise to Trader Ming’s Chicken and Vegetable  Wonton Soup, Trader José’s Mexican Lager and Trader Giotto’s Pesto as well as Arabian Joe’s Middle Eastern Flatbreads.

The retailer explains that these “variations were rooted in an appreciation for different cultures and an attempt to have some fun with our product marketing”. 

But a petition launched by a 17 year old student, Briones Bedell, argues that Trader Joe’s labelling is “trivialising and demeaning” and perpetuate “harmful stereotypes”. Bedell writes: “The Trader Joe’s branding is racist because it exoticizes other cultures – it presents “Joe” as the default “normal” and the other characters falling outside of it – they are “Arabian Joe,” “Trader José,” and “Trader Joe San.”

Trader Joe’s says it began a process to align all its own-label products under its main brand in 2017 to eliminate “customer confusion about these alternative names”. It says it has updated more than 90% of the alternative product labels to the Trader Joe’s name.”

But, clearly irked by the allegations of racism, and the national publicity that Bedell’s petition has generated, the company says it “reserves he right to market our products as we see fit”, adding that it does “not make decisions based on petitions”.