The makers of Sriracha, Huy Fong, are making international headlines because the city of Irwindale has filed a public nuisance lawsuit. Local residents have complained about “the smell”; more specifically, the eye, nose and throat irritation caused by the capsaicin released from jalapeno peppers during processing. Sriracha lovers are generally freaking out because they fear a shortage or price hike.
I happen to be doing a ton of research on Sriracha right now, as it’s the focus of the last chapter of my upcoming book. A couple of things don’t add up for me about this stinky story:
1. I was just at the Sriracha factory in Irwindale on October 2nd. I did not notice a smell or a hot pepper burn outside the factory. When you step inside the building, the offices smell like garlic. The only place I experienced the capsaicin-induced irratation the articles mention is in the pepper grinding room, which is deep in the factory’s bowels. And even at pepper-processing-ground zero, I did not feel a need to wear a face mask or respirator. Now, it may be a different story if you have to live by the factory day after day, but I was frankly shocked at the allegations against the factory. When I was there, there simply was no smell.
2. Huy Fong Foods processes peppers Labor Day through Thanksgiving. That’s when the local red jalapenos are ripe and are trucked into the factory daily, pureed, and mixed with vinegar, salt and sugar. Then, they are stored in the enormous Irwindale warehouse to be bottled throughout the year. So, if the factory is shut down, it won’t mean the end of Sriracha–they have plenty of product stocked up. It would, however, mean a shortage. Closing down now would mean a month of wasted pepper, potentially left to rot in the field. Since every bottle of Sriracha produced is already purchased and accounted for by distributors, it would mean a shortage in next year’s supply.
3. Although several sources have reported that the Irwindale factory can produce up to 7,500 bottles of hot sauce each hour, the fact is the Irwindale factory is new and not entirely up and running. Although all the peppers are processed there (which will end, seasonally, at the end of November), only two bottling lines are up and running. Most of the bottling is done at their old facility in Rosemead. So bottles of Sriracha will continue to be filled from the stockpile of chili puree already holed up at Irwindale.
4. The factory at Rosemead, the site of all their processing and bottling operations for over 20 years, never received a complaint from its residential neighbors.
I feel bad for the nearby residents if the claims are factual; if you’re curious, you can take a look at the neighborhood surrounding the factory here. I also feel bad for the Tran family who runs Huy Fong; they are good, honest people who have built a business from scratch. And so far, The South Coast Air Quality Management District, who is responsible for policing companies in the area, has not detected any odors.
But I think what’s probably the most interesting part of this story is that it has made international headlines. For papers ’round the world to give a fuck about a hot sauce says a lot about a brand’s presence. And in the end, I think a run on the product, with prices skyrocketing (to what? $5 a bottle instead of $3?) can only benefit the brand’s international reputation as the king of hot sauces. It’s certainly bringing The Rooster a lot of attention.
If you’d like to read more on both sides of the situation, this LA Times article is the best I’ve seen. I’m also going to release a video soon of my own adventures in the Sriracha factory. Lastly, I just want to put in writing that I am not an official spokesperson/representative of Huy Fong Foods; I’m simply a writer stating my own, editorial opinions.
Update 11/04/2013: A Judge has tuled that the factory can remain in production until the end of the Jalapeno season. There will be a hearing November 22nd. Source.