Save Sriracha: Save a Beloved Hot Sauce from Smelly Politics

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Local politics in California has ignited fear for fans of Sriracha, an extremely popular hot sauce, created for pho, a Vietnamese soup, and now fancied for Asian, taco and fusion dishes, sushi and street food. Celebrities, home chefs, even workers from the mailroom to the top offices are fans. Sriracha lovers around the globe are closely monitoring the actions of a small Los Angeles suburb that recently went to court to stop its production. The small city of Irwindale, east of Los Angeles, argues that Huy Fong Foods, maker of Sriracha, a hot chili sauce, emits harmful odors from a new plant within the city boundaries.
Bon Appetit named Sriracha the Ingredient of the Year in 2010, while Cook’s Illustrated rated it the best-tasting hot sauce. Sriracha demand has no boundaries. NASA astronauts take its green-cap bottles on space missions. For months, the spicy tragedy boiling in California has been called Sriracha-apocalypse, with legions of restless fans. For now, Irwindale has merely delayed moving against Huy Fong.
Irwindale should turn down the heat on the conflict and let environmental regulators work with Huy Fong. Recent city efforts, in court and with polarizing hearings, only prove that local politics smell worse than sauce production. In addition to the legion of Sriracha lovers, the ultimate losers will be Irwindale and its residents. These not-in-my-backyard sentiments (NIMBYism) and city politics reek of disaster. Clearly, Irwindale over-spices its politics. In 1987, it was nicknamed the Raider Crater as it fumbled stadium plans for the Los Angeles Raiders. This was a nightmare for Los Angeles football fans and is an ongoing dilemma that continues to plague the city. Residents were burned with huge legal bills and have had reputational indigestion for decades.
Ironically, just five years ago, the city supported Huy Fong’s move to Irwindale. This was a smart move as the city needed new businesses to fill empty quarries and generate taxes. Irwindale is covered with huge craters, memories of gravel mining vital to California’s burgeoning love for suburbs and highways. When Huy Fong outgrew its facilities in nearby Rosemead, it had to move to a larger facility while staying close to vital chili pepper farms, which are perfectly suited to the arid Southern California climate. Sriracha’s secret comes from grinding chilies soon after they’re picked. Irwindale supported Huy Fong’s move with redevelopment funds, allowing the construction of a 600,000-square-foot facility at a cost of roughly $40 million. The Los Angeles Business Journal named it the best industrial project of 2012. This was an impressive accomplishment, especially at a time when cities nationwide slashed budgets and reduced services. In November of 2012, Irwindale’s Planning Commission was “happy to report the scent of chilies” from Huy Fong.
The sweet smell of success turned rancid just one year later. In 2013, the city went to court seeking to stop all Huy Fong operations. Panic hit foodies and chefs, fearing the end of Sriracha. Irwindale has not dropped this suit. It complains about the smell as well as burning eyes and coughs. This is odd for many reasons. Residents of Rosemead, a much larger and more densely populated city where Huy Fong was manufactured for decades, never complained. Air quality inspectors did not find any problems in Irwindale. In November, a judge found no credible evidence of health problems associated with odors. Environmental regulators, city consultants and Huy Fong can’t point to the exact problem, much less how to fix anything. Irwindale insists Huy Fong is a public nuisance and continues its march to end sauce production.
Irwindale should let environmental regulators like the South Coast Air Quality Management District work with Huy Fong to create a solution. Communities should not live with harmful fumes or odor, and California law requires that a public nuisance be substantial and unreasonable.
But at this point, Irwindale can’t prove either requirement. For years, it knew about Huy Fong’s operations, including the chili grinding. Air quality regulators, not Irwindale, should determine if the plant emits odors. This is especially the case given Irwindale’s mercurial positions. It relies on complaints from less than a handful of households. Since the grievances began, Huy Fong has worked with air quality regulators, a fact affirmed by the air quality management district and community leaders.
The scope of the problem might be distorted since Irwindale has less than 1,000 voters. Given the small sample size, even a handful of complaints could create intense pressure for local politicians to create arbitrary policies. City officials, residents, regulators and Huy Fong representatives should work together to calm overreaction on all sides. Irwindale has the power to decide if it will forever be known as the proud home of Sriracha or the place where rank politics drove away a globally loved hot sauce.
This article was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on March 21, 2014.  Read it here.