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Spicy Impostors: New Mexico Warns of Chile Scams

Fresh green chile is perishable, but some of it is Mexican being sold as New Mexican.

Ask to see the label on the chile bag or box.

A chile roaster on Federal Boulevard in Denver.

With Denver in the throes of chile season and roasters dotting the sidewalks and roadsides from Sheridan Boulevard to Yosemite Street, New Mexico chile advocates have two words of advice: buyer beware.
Think that Hatch chile from your friendly neighborhood chile stand is the real deal from New Mexico?

Better double-check, say our neighbors to the south. "There's a lot of different chiles being brought in from Mexico and even China," says Erica Trevino of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.

What's the big deal? Well, green chile is something of a religion in Denver, and the key ingredient of its name is of utmost importance. (When you name a dish for an ingredient, that tends to be the case.)

And what makes New Mexico chile so special? "It's been grown here for years and years and years," Trevino answers. "Our soils are good, our temperatures are right and it's just a really good place to grow chile."

"New Mexico is very well known for having the best chile peppers in the world," touts New Mexico Chile Association Executive Director Jaye Hawkins. She says she strives "to make sure people are not labeling chile from other areas as New Mexico chile."

"We've known about it internally in the industry for a long time," says Hawkins. "We've been looking at ways to prevent it from happening. It's affecting us economically."

Less of a good thing

The state's chile harvest has been trending downward, largely because of lower-priced peppers from other places -- including the impostors. In 2005, there were 17,500 acres of chiles in New Mexico, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As of 2013, the total was 9,000 acres. The yield is down by about a third in that same time frame.

""There's not an easy answer to why we're reducing acreage," says Hawkins. "The primary reason is competition."

But it's also not easy to be a chile farmer, she adds. "Chile is a hard crop to grow. You have to be tough. You cannot grow chile on the same piece of land every year."

Because fresh green chile is "highly perishable," impostor chile is typically from Mexico, she adds. But red chile, which is more often frozen, is coming from Peru, China and India.

"Our tips for the buyer will be to look for the certification mark," says Hawkins.

The problem is that the certification program -- which she likens to Idaho's potato program or the certification of Vidalia (Georgia) onions -- just launched in August, so not all of the real peppers will be in sacks and boxes bearing the mark. So far, there are about 200 permitted users.

Ask to see the label on the chile bag or box."We expect to see it in the market over the next couple years," Hawkins says. "It's still really in its infancy."

"In the meantime," she adds, "I would just ask people, 'Where did this come from?'" Chile fiends can ask to see the container it was shipped in, and that will often at least tell you where it was packed. "If it's not legitimate, you might have to look for small letters on the bottom that say, 'Product of Mexico.'"

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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