A handful of residents are firing off allegations that a local hot sauce maker is emitting bad odors into the community, forcing the city to decide whether the factory is a public nuisance.
IRWINDALE, Calif. — The sparkling new, $40 million factory where Huy Fong Foods Inc. makes its world-famous Sriracha hot chili sauce is a 650,000 square-foot marvel of industrial automation.
Computers control every step of the production process that begins with truckloads of red jalapeños being delivered to the Irwindale, Calif., factory. From grinding the peppers to mixing them with vinegar, salt, garlic and sugar, and from packaging the sauce in plastic squeeze bottles with the distinctive rooster logo and green cap to shrink-wrapping boxes for shipping, 12 bottles to a box, workers in hairnets and white lab coats spend most of their time just monitoring the machines.
Each of nine individual bottling robots can process 18,000 bottles of fiery red Sriracha an hour, a Huy Fong
employee said proudly during a recent tour of the plant.
The opening of the factory in 2011 was a coup not only for Huy Fong owner David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who started out selling his homemade sauce door-to-door, but also for Irwindale, a small community in the San Gabriel Valley that is home to just over 1,400 people and is best known for its 17 gravel pits.
The city’s annual budget for 2011-12 featured a photograph of the plant’s main entrance above the headline “We are building the future. Today.”
Construction of the factory was financed with redevelopment money from the city. Under the terms of the loan, Huy Fong agreed to pay $250,000 a year for 10 years, with a balloon payment at the end to pay off the rest of the loan.
“The facility … will bring new jobs, additional tax revenues and a $250,000 in-lieu payment for the next 10 years,” then-City Manager Martin Lomeli promised in his 2011-12 budget message.
It’s all the more surprising, therefore, that the relationship between the city and the sauce maker has soured. Irwindale has taken Huy Fong to court, and the city is expected to decide next month whether to declare the factory a public nuisance.
“From mid-September 2013 to the present, the City has received numerous complaints from residents complaining of the strong, offensive chili odors emanating from the [factory] causing irritation to residents’ eyes and throats and causing residents to experience headaches,” the city said in the lawsuit it filed in October in response to the complaints.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied the city’s request for a preliminary order shutting down all operations at the factory, finding “a lack of credible evidence” linking health problems to chili odors, but enjoined Huy Fong “from emitting anything that causes odors or are odors in themselves.”
The company, which also makes Chili Garlic and Sambal Oelek hot sauces, has said it uses state-of-the-art filtration technology and that only a handful of residents — one of them the son of a city council member — have lodged any complaints about smells. At a city council meeting last month, employees wearing red t-shirts and brandishing “Save Our Sriracha” signs turned out in support of Huy Fong, voicing concerns that they might lose their jobs.
“Believe me, if something was going wrong, I wouldn’t be working for this company,” one worker told the council.
“I love this company.”
A hot market, getting hotter
By expanding to Irwindale from nearby Rosemead, where it had operated a much smaller plant for 28 years, Huy Fong positioned itself to become an even hotter player in one of the country’s fieriest industries.
“Without the expansion, we would have outgrown our production and storage capacity in Rosemead,” the company told MintPress News via email.
In 2012, market researcher IBISWorld reported that the hot sauce industry had grown an average of 9.3 percent a year over the previous 10 years and predicted that it would reach $1.3 billion in annual sales by 2017. The more adventurous eating habits of Americans have fueled the demand for products such as McIlhenny Co.’s iconic Tabasco sauce and Huy Fong’s mouth-searing Sriracha.
Every day, 40 trucks pull up to the loading docks at the Irwindale plant to fill orders for customers. According to
Tran, his company took in about $85 million in 2012 and, at full production capacity of 200,000 bottles a day, could generate about $300 million a year in sales.
Tran’s start in the hot sauce business was considerably more modest. He ground jalapeño peppers by hand in a tiny office in Los Angeles’ Chinatown and used an old Chevy van to make deliveries of his sauce, which he modeled after recipes made in Si Racha, Thailand, and named for the old Panamanian freighter, the Huey Fong, that had shipped him and other refugees out of Vietnam in 1978.
With demand growing, Tran in 1986 took over a 68,000 square-foot factory in Rosemead formerly occupied by Wham-O, the maker of Frisbees and hula hoops, and also located in a residential area. Some 25 years later, Irwindale welcomed Huy Fong with open arms.
“They stated that they couldn’t wait to see the Irwindale address on our Sriracha,” the company told MintPress News.
At the much larger Irwindale plant, Huy Fong employs 80 people year-round in a city with an unemployment rate of 11.5 percent, which compares to a rate of 8.1 percent in California as a whole. During the chili grinding season that runs from August to November, the workforce swells to about 200.
According to Huy Fong officials, odors from the Rosemead plant were never a problem. But around the time of the first grinding season at Irwindale in 2012, the city councilman’s son complained of a bad smell. Tran said in a court declaration that Huy Fong responded by installing a carbon filtration system “at considerable expense,” not because “it believed there was a problem, but because it wanted to be a good citizen in its new home.”
In late October 2013, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) inspected the plant after receiving hotline complaints of a “real bad chili odor,” “garlic and chili smell causing coughing and running nose” and “very strong chili smell.”
Inspectors detected only a mild chili odor at close proximity to the factory’s exhaust hoods, but on Oct. 28, the city of Irwindale filed its public nuisance suit against Huy Fong.
“As a result of being outside with the presence of these chili odors in the air, my eyes began to itch and I had an itchy sensation in my throat — almost as if I could taste chilis,” resident Carmen Roman testified in a declaration.
Emotions run hot
The guided tours of Huy Fong’s factory are a recent innovation, part of a public relations offensive to counter any impression that the company, which was initially welcomed to Irwindale as a boon to its economy, actually presents a danger to its environment.
“My plant has an open door,” Tran has said. “Anyone who has questions is welcome to first-hand see how we do it. Anytime we will let you come in. Anytime.”
The sickly sweet odor of garlic pervades the interior of the plant, but on a recent afternoon, there wasn’t the faintest hint of a bad smell in the surrounding neighborhood of modest, single-family homes. The defiant “No Tear Gas Made Here” banner that Tran had posted over the entrance to the plant is no longer there.
The city “acted severely toward us without a real investigation into the matter,” Tran said in an open letter titled “A Story Behind the Story” that he released in November. He suggested that officials were upset because Huy Fong got a bank loan and paid off its debt to the city early, thus depriving Irwindale of millions of dollars in interest payments.
City Attorney Frank Galante did not respond to requests for an interview, but he and other officials have insisted they don’t want to shut Huy Fong down.
“The city has no issue with the product,” Galante told the Christian Science Monitor. “They just want them to upgrade, as good neighbors, and not negatively affect the residents.”
Irwindale’s municipal code defines a public nuisance as any business that maintains its premises “in a condition which is adverse or detrimental to the public peace, health, safety or general welfare.” Courts can order a business to be shut down until it abates the nuisance.
The city won a partial victory in November, when Judge Robert O’Brien ruled that “The odor complaints presented to the Court are reasonably inferred to be emanating from the facility,” and ordered Huy Fong to “immediately make changes in its site operations reducing odors and the potential for odors.”
Sources at Huy Fong say the company has been working with AQMD to identify the source of any odors. Once those tests have been completed, the company says, it will implement appropriate remediation measures. The Pasadena Star-News, citing AQMD data, reported last week that of the 61 odor complaints made to the air quality board since October, investigators traced the smell to the Huy Fong factory just four times, twice after the chili grinding season ended.
“The company has not ignored the problem,” Huy Fong’s attorney, John Tate, told MintPress News in an interview.
But at the Irwindale City Council’s last meeting on Feb. 26, emotions ran high as chili-phobic residents urged council members to adopt a resolution finding Huy Fong is maintaining a public nuisance. Of the 61 complaints to AQMD, 40 have come from just four households.
“It’s really bad for me and for my grandkids,” Dena Zepeda said at the meeting. “Five of them have asthma and it’s bad for them.”
The city decided to delay a decision until April 2 while testing continues, but with a possible trial of its lawsuit now scheduled for November, Tate sounds resigned to more heated controversy.
“It’s entirely conceivable that a handful of people will complain no matter what,” he said.