Sriracha Maker Given More Time to Contain Spicy Fumes

| February 27, 2014 | 0 Comments
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Sriracha chili sauce is produced at the Huy Fong Foods factory in Irwindale, Calif. Photo: Nick Ut/AP

Sriracha chili sauce is produced at the Huy Fong Foods factory in Irwindale, Calif. Photo: Nick Ut/AP

Post by Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR (2/27/2014)

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The saga over the darling of the condiment world, Sriracha, continues.

The popular hot sauce in the rooster bottle is made by Huy Fong Foods in the Los Angeles suburb of Irwindale. The city has had to balance its need for business success against complaints from some residents about spicy fumes from the plant.

Wednesday night, after a contentious hearing, Irwindale’s city council decided to give Huy Fong a bit more time to figure out how to contain those fumes.

Sriracha, the hot sauce for hipsters (and the rest of us) has gotten widespread national attention since some Irwindale residents complained. They say that when the red jalapenos that give the sauce its distinctive color are crushed, the fumes from the chiles become a big problem. Last fall, during grinding season, Yolanda Wested told CBS News she couldn’t stay outside.

“We had a bridal shower, we had to have the guests go inside, because they were choking, hacking, it was right in the throat,” said Wested.

The people who have complained say in the 12-week period in which Huy Fong Foods grinds its fresh jalapenos, the air is downright dangerous. Young Whang is the proprietor of a liquor store right across from Huy Fong headquarters, and she doesn’t agree.

“I don’t smell any,” says Whang. “I came to my customer, I ask her sometime — ‘you smell any?’ They say no.”

But in a city with a population just under 1500, even a few complaints matter. Writer D.J. Waldie has spent several decades chronicling the evolution of Southern California’s suburbs. He says Irwindale’s size is a large part of why the local government is taking these complaints so seriously.

“City councils, particularly in small communities, have a very small electorate, and they have to worry about the anger or uncertainty of just a few hundred people,” says Waldie.

Maybe even fewer than that. The South Coast Air Quality Management District told NPR that while 61 complaints about Irwindale’s eye-watering air had been received since October, 41 of those complaints came from only 4 addresses. Media manager Sam Atwood said agency personnel investigated most complaints, but could only trace the odor to Huy Fong on three days.

So: Revenue and the cachet of producing one of the world’s most recognized condiments, or occasionally irritating the sensitivities of a few residents — what carries more weight?

All heat and spice inside the Huy Fong Foods grinding rooms. Photo: Nick Ut/ASSOCIATED PRESS

All heat and spice inside the Huy Fong Foods grinding rooms. Photo: Nick Ut/ASSOCIATED PRESS

“Both have decent arguments, says Jody Armour, law professor at the University of Southern California. “But that’s what makes it a tough case in a lot of ways.”

Armour says the Huy Fong clash with its neighbors represents two legitimate, competing interests. On the one hand, Armour points out, you have mostly-Latino neighbors who strive to maintain well-kept blocks and don’t want to see — or smell — any slippage in standards.

“Communities of color are concerned with being blighted,” says Armour.

On the other side is David Tran, who came to the United States with nothing as a Vietnamese refugee. His entrepreneurial spark turned a taste of home into 60 million dollars in sales last year.

Filmmaker Griffin Hammond produced a documentary called Sriracha with David Tran’s cooperation. While filming, Hammond visited the factory during grinding season. He says that while the smell inside the grinding room can be “pretty unbearable,” it is barely noticeable from outside.

“Once I stepped outside the grinding room, I didn’t smell it anymore,” says Hammond. “They have it nicely cordoned off. And every time I’ve stepped outside the factory, I’ve never smelled it.”

Wednesday night, representatives from the Air Quality Management District read a letter at the city council meeting offering to work with Tran to “suggest and evaluate” ventilation designs that would resolve odor issues, so he and Irwindale can coexist peacefully.

Meanwhile, people in other cities, including some on the East Coast, have invited David Tran to move Huy Fong to their region. Filmmaker Griffin Hammond believes that’s highly unlikely.

“Of course they’re not going to move to Philadelphia,” says Hammond. “There are no fields of red jalapenos in Pennsylvania.”

Although they do put Sriracha on cheese steaks…

Copyright 2014 NPR.

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