“Red or green?” may be the state question, but for the local chile industry the question is, “Is it grown here or there?”
Gov. Susana Martinez signed the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act April 5, making it illegal to advertise products as “New Mexico chile” unless the chiles are state-grown. Rep. Andy Nuñez (DTS-Hatch) sponsored House Bill 485.
Local restaurants and supermarkets buy peppers from cheap, foreign chile producers, but claim to use New Mexico chile, said Jaye Hawkins, New Mexico Chile Association spokeswoman. She said state chile production acreage dropped from 35,000 acres in 1993 to fewer than 9,000 acres this year because of foreign competition, but the legislation will help rectify false advertising.
“Everybody knows New Mexico green chile is the best in the world and because there was no law against it, they might as well say that’s where it is coming from,” she said.
Dino Cervantes, managing vice president of Cervantes Enterprises, a food-processing organization specializing in chile pepper production, said his company’s chile comes from New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Mexico. For products sold in New Mexico, however, he uses only New Mexico-grown chile.
“It is important to have local chile available to people,” he said. “I think it is what they expect here. For some of the bigger industrial customers in other parts of country, it is not as big of an issue, so when we go outside of this area, we give the customer the choice — the products with New Mexico chile costs a premium price.”
Hawkins said the legislation will rejuvenate the local economy.
“It is a part of New Mexico’s culture. It is a big part of how we define our state,” she said. “It is an important crop to the state economy. Up until couple years ago, the contribution was over $350 million a year from people purchasing chile for their products.”
Cervantes said advertising New Mexican chile attracts customers, but businesses often look for ways to cut costs.
“I think they realize the ‘New Mexico-grown’ label carries a quality name, and in a lot of cases, it does bring a premium price to their product,” he said. “If they can buy it from somewhere else and call it New Mexican, that is economical for them.”
Knowledgeable chile consumers can detect a difference between local chile and chile produced elsewhere, Hawkins said.
“There is a distinctive flavor, or heat to New Mexico chile,” she said. “I can definitely can tell difference when I am eating it.”
The New Mexican Chile Advertising Act will allow consumers to make informed choices about purchases, Cervantes said.
“It will give consumers a choice, and they can be confident when they make their decision that the label is representative of what the product is offering,” he said. “We are hoping it brings the industry back into the state, so hopefully this will create more opportunities in the local economy.”