by Dave DeWitt, Associate Professor (Adjunct Faculty), Department of
Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business, New Mexico State University
In July, 2004, Mexico’s National Council of Chile Producers decided to pursue the origin-control of Mexican chile varieties in order to fight competition from other countries. “We are going to work on getting designation of origin for our chiles because there are chiles around that are not authentic,” said José Manuel Gochicoa, the president of the council. “We want to be like champagne. We have many regional chiles that are not yet known around the world. We want to give them a designation for when this market grows.”
If origin-control is adopted, does this mean that jalapeños grown in the U.S. would have to be called something else, as one news service suggested? No one knows for certain, but the council’s plan certainly brings up some interesting points to consider.
Many countries belonging to the European Union protect certain products with what is called “Protected Designation of Origin.” For example, the term “Champagne” is restricted to a sparkling wine from that region of France only, and “Roquefort” cheese is limited to the cheese that is produced by certain methods only in that village. The four requirements of such a designation are terroir, the region and soil contributing to the product; matiere premiere, the raw materials from which it’s made; savoir-faire, the techniques of making the product; and tradition, or the knowledge of its manufacture built up over generations.
“In other words,” says food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, “you just can’t make any old cheese and call it Roquefort. You can’t even make a sheep’s milk cheese, inject it with Penicillium roqueforti and call it Roquefort. And the controlled-name status has the force of law around the world.”
The E.U. countries have different terms for origin control. In Spain, it’s Denominacíon de Origen (D.O.); in France it’s called Appellation d’Origine Controleé (A.O.C.); and in Italy the term is Denominazione Origine Protetta (D.O.P.). Regardless of the term or the origin of the product, the products are protected by law in the E.U. and in other countries by treaty, which is why American sparkling wines cannot be labeled as “Champagne.” Interestingly, the United States and Mexico do not, as yet, have such protective laws for regional products; they are protected only by trademarked brands, which is why any fresh green chile can be labeled as “Hatch,” but there is a trademark of that same name for canned chile and various chile products.
Origin-Control and European Chiles
Two chile pepper products have gained origin-control in Europe. The first is Pimentón de la Vera, a spicy paprika from the Extremadura region in western Spain, which was granted D.O. According to Jenkins, “The paprika is produced from mature red peppers, which are dried and smoked over oak fires, then stone-ground to a uniquely smooth, almost talclike texture.” It is used to season sausages and other cured meats, and since the controlled-name designation, the production tripled in five years.
Pimentón de la Vera:
Photos by Harald Zoschke
Piment de Espelette, a chile from the Basque region of southwest France, was granted an A.O.C., along with the products made with it. This chile has a long history in the region and is a symbol much in the same way that chiles are in New Mexico. They are hung in strings to dry on buildings and are then ground into powder. As the popularity of the peppers grew in France, the farmers realized that they had a very unique product, one that deserved recognition and protection. They did not want farmers in other regions to grow, for example, paprika and call it Espelette.
Photos by Harald Zoschke
At first they formed cooperative enterprises to protect their interests, and eventually they applied to the National Institute for Trade Name Origins for an A.O.C. On December 1, 1999, an A.O.C. was granted to Espelette peppers and products, giving them the same protection as more famous names, such as Pecorino Tuscano, the sheep’s milk cheese from Tuscany. But what impact do the origin-controls of European chiles have on the chiles of Mexico?
With a few exceptions like Piment d’Espelette, the Protected Designation of Origin applies to products, not to the raw materials. For example, the A.O.C. for cheeses applies to the finished product but not necessarily to the sheep contributing the milk. So the protection of Mexican chiles would, by extension, have to involve specific products made from them, like smoking jalapeños to make chipotles. Then there is the regional factor, which states that in order to have a Protected Designation of Origin, the product must come from a strictly defined geographical area–as with Piment d’Espelette, which is grown within a group of just ten villages.
Such a geographical requirement would doom origin-control for the jalapeño. Originally named after the city of Jalapa, jalapeños are not even grown there any more. But they are grown all over Mexico, New Mexico, Texas and many other countries, such as Australia. So that chile is out of the bag, so to speak, and there is no strictly defined geographical area. And what about the other requirements, such as a long tradition of making a product and the specialized knowledge required? Well, that would hardly apply to canned jalapeños, which are ubiquitous in Mexico and New Mexico, but it might apply, say, to a unique type of smoked chile from a certain part of one particular state. In that case, Pasilla de Oaxaca, a unique smoked chile from the state of Oaxaca, might qualify, but certainly neither the jalapeño nor the generic chipotle would. But what is the demand for this type of chile? Outside of the region, there is none. And I don’t see any Pasilla de Oaxaca pretenders out there.
The chiltepin, a wild chile that is harvested in the mountains of Sonora might qualify for origin- control for the villages of La Aurora and Mazocahui. There is the strict geographical origin, a unique raw material, and a tradition and specific techniques of collection, drying, and packaging the chiles. A case could be made for a Protected Designation of Origin for Chiltepínes de Sonora, but to what end? To my knowledge, there are no commercial growers in Chihuahua or elsewhere passing off their chiltepins as hand-harvested Sonoran ones.
The Mexican Agenda
The Mexican growers claim that they are losing market share because 40 percent of the dried chiles in Mexico are “now imported and non-authentic,” according to Gochicoa. “They don’t have the same taste but people buy them because they are cheap.” If this is true, where are they coming from? I know for a fact that U.S. growers are not producing anchos and pasillas and shipping them south. So they must be imported from Asia, which is astonishing when you think about it. Can the Chinese or Indians actually grow poblanos, dehydrate them to make anchos, ship them to Mexico, and still make a profit competing against locally grown anchos? If they can, more power to them.
Gochicoa went on to state: “In a free-trade treaty like the one we are looking at now, the only way to protect one’s brand and quality is with an official Mexican standard and a designation of origin.” It seems to me that the National Council of Chile Producers is attempting to use origin-control to evade free-trade laws. An analogy would be: imagine that India and Malaysia have a free-trade agreement. Malaysia begins shipping black pepper into India, and India applies for origin-control on black pepper because it originated there and the sole purpose is prevent the import of competing pepper, not to protect a cultural treasure. Grapes are indigenous to Turkey, so should the Turks attempt to gain origin-control over them to ban imported wines? I think not.
Both chile peppers and black pepper are major international commodities, grown and traded all over the world for centuries. Except for the specific examples cited above, it’s too late to claim origin-control for anchos, pasillas, cayennes, jalapeños, paprika, habaneros, birdseyes, or any other internationally-traded chile varieties.
Origin-Control for New Mexican Chiles?
Ironically, the popular chile varieties that best qualify for Protected Designation of Origin are the New Mexican varieties. The strict geographic region is southern New Mexico. The raw materials, the chiles, were specifically developed in New Mexico by New Mexico State University, starting one hundred years ago. The techniques of growing, harvesting, and processing the chiles are unique to the area, and the chile tradition itself is hundreds of years old in New Mexico. So a good case could be made for origin-control of the New Mexican varieties.
The growers in southern New Mexico worry continually about competition from Mexican growers of New Mexican varieties, and Mexican chile imports into New Mexico average 40,000 metric tons a year. A University-based Chile Task Force has worked for years to help growers compete with the Mexican imports. So, should the Task Force apply for Protected Designation of Origin for New Mexican chiles in order to circumvent NAFTA and ban Mexican-grown New Mexican varieties?
No. The fact is that the chile industry in New Mexico is not just about growing–it’s also about processing. New Mexican growers cannot grow enough chiles to meet the demands of the processors in southern New Mexico, who need the Mexican-grown varieties of New Mexican, jalapeño, cayenne, and paprika. If the importation of New Mexican varieties were banned, New Mexican growers would be helped by getting higher prices, but this would be more than offset by the financial harm done to the Mexican growers and New Mexican processors.
The National Council of Chile Producers in Mexico should not pursue origin-control but rather form a task force of their own to better compete against the foreign chiles. To better understand the New Mexico Chile Task Force and its goals and accomplishments, click here.