Sriracha maker turning up heat on city

LOS ANGELES — Avonne Penaflor and Anna Lim entered the doors of the Sriracha factory in Irwindale, Calif., took a deep breath and started to giggle.

They had caught wind of an odor that has allegedly inflamed respiratory conditions, launched lawsuits and made legions of fans hungry.

“It’s very nice, actually,” said Lim, 38, of Azusa.

Huy Fong Foods, the creator of Sriracha hot sauce, has been closed to the public for more than 30 years, fearing that competitors would steal trade secrets. But after months of Irwindale residents and city officials accusing the sauce maker of flooding their city with an offensive spicy odor, the notoriously private company has thrown open its doors.

Over the last few weeks, reporters, curious residents and foodies have streamed into the factory to take a tour that ends with a free miniature bottle of the Asian hot sauce, as well as a request to fill out a smell survey.

“We want people to come and see for themselves,” said Sriracha creator David Tran. “Is this smell harmful?”

As relations with Irwindale deteriorate, Huy Fong officials have turned to public opinion to help their case, hiring a public relations firm last week and finally assuming control of their Facebook page, which has more than 270,000 likes.

City officials see an uncooperative, defiant company that has dragged its feet in finding a solution. Last year the city asked a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to halt odor-causing operations at the factory.

After the judge granted the city’s request for a preliminary injunction, Tran displayed a green banner in front of the factory with the slogan: “No tear gas made here.”

Huy Fong executives say they’ve felt bullied and disrespected. They accused the city of taking an anti-business stance and rushing them toward a solution they can’t be certain will work.

The battle was supposed to come to a head Wednesday, when the City Council considered declaring the Sriracha factory a public nuisance. But after a boisterous public hearing, the council decided to give the factory more time to come up with a solution. In a rare move, officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District offered to mediate the conflict and offer technical expertise.

But there is still a basic disagreement, even among the experts, about whether the smell coming from the factory is harmful.

South Coast Air Quality Management District officials said that by Wednesday morning, they had received a total of 61 complaints about the Sriracha plant. But at least 10 came after the plant stopped grinding chiles in December, said spokesman Sam Atwood, and four households out of 18 total accounted for about two-thirds of the complaints. There haven’t been enough complaints for the AQMD to issue a notice of violation, Atwood said, though the agency admittedly sets a high bar for such a violation.

Some of the most vigorous complaints have come from Irwindale City Councilman Hector Ortiz’s son, according to court records. Manuel Ortiz did not return calls seeking comment, and Hector Ortiz declined to comment. Dena Zepeda, a 56-year-old woman who lives down the street from the mayor, has also lodged multiple complaints with AQMD, saying her glands are swollen.

Irwindale officials say they’ve gotten complaints from more than enough households to justify taking action.

“We continue to receive ongoing complaints, and we will pursue the action as long as someone’s complaining,” said City Attorney Fred Galante.

But the relatively low number of complaints, as well as their sources, have sparked public speculation about whether the problem has been blown out of proportion.

“I honestly don’t think there is a smell problem,” said Enrique Islas, 29, who works at the factory and lives across the street. “None of my neighbors have complained, either. I don’t get it.”

Paul Rosenfeld, an environmental chemist with Santa Monica consulting firm SWAPE, said that odors can exhibit tricky behavior and affect people in different ways. Smells can rise into the air, descend without warning and intensify depending on the time of day, said Rosenfeld, whom the city has hired to consult on the smell.

That could explain why some people are affected and some are not. Those with asthma and other respiratory conditions, for example, may experience irritation, while others may catch a whiff and discover a sudden craving for dumplings.

Rosenfeld, whose firm was rejected by Huy Fong Foods for the consultation, said Sriracha sauce production can release a variety of harmful odors. Garlic contains sulfur, peppers contain capsaicin, and the vinegar used in the sauce can release acidic vapors. He conducted a study on multiple days that sampled odors in 21 different locations, and found that harmful levels did exist.

If inspectors don’t take samples during the evening and in the morning, “the AQMD will miss it every time,” Rosenfeld said.

Atwood said Rosenfeld’s sampling method was subjective because it relied on smell detectors instead of air sampling.

“Air sampling and lab analysis is required,” Atwood said. “It’s more objective.”

As the battle over the odor continues, the factory’s daily tours are proving popular, with office associate Mary Almodovar saying they are booked up months in advance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the more than 100 visitors who completed the smell survey have complained about an odor.

Inside, the deep red color of the sauce is displayed proudly on tables, chairs, walls and even toolboxes. The tours start at the conveyor belt where the peppers are ground, then visitors wind past a series of enclosed machines that squirt hot sauce into plastic bottles, which are transported by conveyor belt to the shipping area to be boxed, shrink-wrapped and stacked in pallets. The grinding season, which produces the most odors, won’t start until the end of the summer, so most visitors experience only a mild, peppery garlic scent.

Lim and Penaflor posed for multiple iPhone pictures and gave positive marks on their smell surveys. They’ve followed every twist of the Sriracha saga and asked Almodovar for an update on the complaints.

“I don’t know the exact details,” Almodovar said. “But to each his own, I guess. Everybody’s different.”

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