New Mexico law tries to stop chile fraud

SANTA FE – A new law aimed at protecting authentic New Mexico chiles is set to go into effect.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reports that impostors of the state’s iconic agricultural product will be guilty of trademark infringement beginning Sunday because of a new protective law.

The New Mexico Chile Advertising Act makes it unlawful for vendors to label fresh or processed chiles as being from New Mexico unless they were actually grown in the state.

Vendors subject to the law include groceries, restaurants, convenience stores, farmers markets and roadside vegetable stands.

Hatch farmer Jimmy Lytle said Monday he’s hopeful the regulation will boost the chile industry in New Mexico. All too often, he said, retailed chiles are dubbed as New Mexico-grown, when in reality, they are from other states or other countries.

“It’s going on all the time,” he said.

State Rep. Andy Nuñez, an independent from the chile capital of Hatch, sponsored the law. It was approved by Legislature and signed by Gov. Susana Martinez in 2011.

Nuñez said he wanted to end persistent deceptions occurring across the state. Chiles from Peru, India, China and Mexico were being imported to New Mexico, then falsely billed on labels or menus as the home-state product.

“New Mexico chile is the best. We have to do our best to protect it,” Nuñez said.

Eight inspectors in the Standards & Consumer Division of the state Department of Agriculture will have the job of rooting out chile impostors in New Mexico.

“This was an unfunded mandate that we will do our best to enforce,” said Joe Gomez, director of the division.

His operation is down in manpower about 25 percent, but it will add chile inspections to other work in regulating the food industry, Gomez said.

Lytle, who’s farming about 70 acres of chiles this year, said for the law to work, state regulators must be diligent.

“If the NMDA enforces it pretty strictly, I think it will help quite a bit,” he said.

To simplify verification, the Department of Agriculture wants companies that use New Mexico chile in their products to register them with the state.

So far, five companies are on the registry, including one from California. Gomez said he expects 35 or 40 companies eventually will be on the state’s list.