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The Jalapeño Grinding Experiment That Nearly Caused the 'Sriracha Apocalypse'

That time a kitchen lab experiment nearly shut down the world's most popular sriracha hot sauce company.

by Jason Koebler
Jul 14 2014, 7:30pm
Image: Flickr/Memphis CVB

The California factory of the world's most popular brand of sriracha hot sauce nearly got shut down earlier this year, partly because of an amateurish jalapeño grinding experiment done in the kitchenette of a science lab. 

We almost lost Huy Fong Foods' sriracha sauce for a while there, thanks to the kind of small town politics you normally see on an episode of Parks and Recreation. That, and the hot sauce-making recipes undertaken by a group commissioned by tiny Irwindale, California's city council to measure air quality in situations where extremely tasty hot sauce is actively being made. 

The saga, which lasted from October through the end of May, was documented in emails and city council memos sent between Irwindale council members and representatives at Huy Fong Foods, which were all just obtained by the inexhaustible Freedom of Information Act requesters over at Muckrock. It was called the "Sriracha Apocalypse," and things got pretty tense for a while.

If you don't remember, the factory was temporarily ordered closed by a judge because city residents were complaining that they could smell garlic and jalapeño pepper odors throughout the city—one man also said that he had "begun noticing red dust particles in his pool."

The experiment's "methods." Image: City of Irwindale

To test the safety of grinding peppers, the South Coast Air Quality Management District did just that—in its own kitchen, not in the factory itself (it wasn't pepper grinding season when the experiment was carried out).

In a presentation prepared for the city council, the South Coast AQMD detailed its "jalapeño grinding experiment," in which testers found three pounds of green jalapeño peppers, ground them up with a manual grinder "to simulate the grinding process," and a food processor "used to simulate both the grinding and the mixing processes." In later experiments, the researchers added vinegar, for taste most likely.

The group notes that Huy Fong uses upwards of 100 million pounds of red jalapeños each year, but three pounds of green jalapeños will probably do the trick. 

Anyway, the group found that when you make some pepper paste in a food processor (grinding a jalapeño and adding vinegar to it), the number of particles in the lab's kitchen showed a "substantial increase," though not as much as when they more closely approximated making actual hot sauce, using jalapeños, vinegar, garlic, and sugar. If you're getting hungry here, you're not alone.

The results of the test—the red box is the overall particle levels. Image: City of Irwindale

The ridiculousness of this shouldn't be ignored: South Coast AQMD measured particle levels in a random kitchen after grinding peppers in a completely different way than Huy Fong Foods does. The group did it on a tiny scale, with none of the filtration systems that are common in factory-level food production. Its researchers measured particle matter right next to the blender; presumably the residents who were allegedly smelling this stuff were not living inside the factory.

In any case, all's well that ends well, I suppose—the council and Huy Fong Foods worked out a deal earlier this year to keep the company in the city, maybe because the company was being actively courted by cities in other states.

At least the air quality inspectors were left with some homemade hot sauce.