Things are heating up in Irwindale, California, a small city some 20 miles west of Los Angeles — but they may cool down if a Sriracha hot sauce factory chooses to move after a resolution passed by the city council last week officially deemed it a public nuisance.
The council’s move came after months of public scrutiny precipitated by complaints about the health effects of smells emanating from the factory, where the popular hot sauce is concocted from chili peppers, garlic, and vinegar.
Local debate has been concerned with assessing the severity of the health risks and balancing those quality of life issues with economics. Beyond Irwindale, the controversy has alarmed consumers of the ubiquitous (for now) hot sauce.
Fred Galante, City Attorney for Irwindale, told VICE News that residents and people who work in the surrounding buildings have filed numerous complaints with the city. One child in particular, who suffers from asthma, was prohibited from playing outside throughout the company’s chili-grinding season, which runs from late August to mid-November.
“They have been experiencing very strong chili odors, and when you smell these odors, it impacts your health,” he said.
John Tate, a lawyer for Huy Fong Foods, told VICE News that the company doesn’t understand the city’s action.
“It’s questionable whether there’s a problem in the first place, but the City Council has, for reasons it knows best, decided to make this a major issue,” he said. “The company has no desire to discomfort people if [the issue] is legitimate, and has been working to improve its filtration system and resolve the issue, if possible. But the city has been very difficult to deal with.”
Declaring the factory a public nuisance prepares legal grounds for Irwindale to force Huy Fong Food to rectify the situation, presumably by installing smell-mitigation technologies.
The complaints that prompted the city council’s resolution documented how residents had experienced things like itchy and burning noses and throats, heartburn, watery eyes, trouble breathing, and fits of coughing. One resident went so far as to liken the fumes to being afflicted by pepper spray.
But Monica Lopez, a 50-year resident of Irwindale who lives just three blocks from the factory, told VICE News she supports Huy Fong Foods and has never experienced any problems or health concerns due to its operation.
“I honestly don’t smell it,” she said. “Everybody eats that chili sauce. You go to any Chinese restaurant or any restaurant around here — really, they have that stuff on the table. I’m 100 percent in favor of them staying here.”
The hot sauce factory has been great for the city, according to Manuel Ojeda, owner of Michael’s Super Burgers. Sriracha is a staple in his restaurant, which is located less than a half mile away from the factory.
Ojeda, who has lived in Irwindale for 19 years with his wife and three children, told VICE News that no one in his family has ever smelled anything from the Sriracha plant.
“You know, a lot of people are complaining about the factory,” he said, “but the [Breeder’s Choice] dog-food plant over here, close to my restaurant, sometimes stinks, but nobody says anything about that.”
Lopez said that she also smells the odor from the dog food processing plant, every time she passes through that end of town.
George Gulesserian, owner of Pitas to Go in Irwindale, located roughly a mile away from the factory, told VICE News that he, too, has never smelled any hazardous odors, nor has he received any complaints from customers.
“I think Huy Fong Foods is good for the city, and I don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing,” he said. “There are a lot of employees working in there, and they’re paying a lot of taxes, so it’s definitely good for the city.”
According to Tate, the factory employs roughly 60 people year-round, and can employ up to 200 people during the busy chili-grinding season.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), an air pollution agency responsible for regulating air pollution in the region, has been working to assess the severity of the problem, but its findings have been controversial.
By February of this year, SCAQMD had received 61 complaints about the factory, and — as SCAQMD Media Relations Manager Sam Atwood confirmed to Vice NEWS — 41 of them came from just four households
“On a few occasions, maybe two, we were able to track an odor reported by a resident back to the plant,” he said. “We did not get the volume of complaints, nor were we able to confirm a sufficient number of complaints to issue an actual violation for what we call a public nuisance.” As of last week, the SCAQMD had received roughly 70 complaints, Atwood said.
When asked about these statistics by VICE News, Galante questioned their validity outright.
“I actually don’t think that’s accurate,” he said. “We received complaints from businesses, from residents — and what we’ve determined is that the airflow impacts a certain neighborhood stronger than others.”
Either way, with the Twittersphere dreading a looming #Srirachapocalypse and capsaicin-crazed fiends terrified that the plant might close for repairs (or for a move), the good news is that an 18-month supply of Sriracha is reported to be available to hold off the hordes of crazed spice-fiends.