SANTA FE — Con men have had an easy time claiming any old pepper as a New Mexico chile.

Now the state's iconic agricultural product will be more on par with Washington apples and Idaho potatoes Êpass off impostor products as those specialty foods, and you are guilty of trademark infringement.

New Mexico legislators did not obtain a trademark for homegrown chile, but they approved a protective law that will be enforced starting Sunday.

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

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

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

Nu-ez said he wanted to end persistent deceptions occurring across the state. Chile from Peru, India, China and Mexico was being imported to New Mexico, then falsely billed on labels or menus as products of the state.

"New Mexico chile is the best. We have to do our best to protect it," Nu-ez said.

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

"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 will add chile inspections to other work in regulating the food industry, Gomez 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.

Jim Wrench of Santa Fe Ole Food Co. has registered various products.

Though he said the process began as mystery but fell into place without a hitch, he said.

"It was easy. It took maybe five minutes," Wrench said. "I like the goal, which is to go after those people who are mislabeling products."

Those who break the law are subject to having their product sales stopped by the Department of Agriculture.

New Mexico's strategy to protect its chile from imitators comes years after other states established safeguards for their high-profile agricultural products.

For instance, Washington state obtained a trademark in 1961 for its apples. Vidalia onions, a premier agricultural product in Georgia, received trademark protection in 1986.

The New Mexico Chile Association, a trade organization, said chile production could be the only business venture in which New Mexico is tops in the nation.

Legislative analysts who reviewed Nu-ez's bill said more than 72,000 tons of chile are grown in New Mexico each year.

But Nu-ez said the quality as much as the quantity of New Mexico chile inspired his bill.