When Sriracha Is Made, A Different Kind of Fire Season Comes to L.A.
As the cliché goes, there are four seasons in Los Angeles: Earthquake, fire, flood and drought. In Irwindale, which lies on the L.A. basin’s eastern edge, residents are learning of a new, less destructive if not uncomfortable seasonal affliction: Sriracha season.
Earlier this year, Huy Fong, maker of the ubiquitous Rooster Sauce, moved its production facilities from nearby Rosemead to a 650,000 square-foot building in the suburban town of 1,422. With the proprietary hybrid jalapenos the chile sauce is made from ripening in Southern Californian fields owned by of Underwood Family Farms, this is harvest season. But production may be cut short due to a lawsuit filed by the city that says, in essence, the factory is turning the city's air into a crowd dispersant.
Although its available year round, Sriracha is essentially a seasonal product. Between September and December of 2013, an astonishing 100 million pounds of chiles will be delivered to the Huy Fong factory, where they are immediately processed. Sriracha is only made from fresh chiles, and only chiles grown by Underwood. After the last truck carrying 20 tons of chiles arrives and is ground up with garlic, vinegar, salt and sugar (and potassium sorbate, sodium bisulfite and xanthan gum), no more Sriracha can be made until the following year.
So they make a whole lot of it.
If the city of Irwindale has its way, not all of those 100 million pounds of jalapenos will make it into green-capped bottles. Citing citizen’s complaints of “burning eyes, irritated throats and headaches,” according to the Associated Press, Irwindale has asked a judge to halt production at the facility. The lawsuit claims the chile smell coming from the factory is a public nuisance.
Randy Clemens, author of the Sriracha Cookbook and one of the organizers behind the recent Los Angeles Sriracha Festival, loves the aroma. When he would drive to the old factory in Rosemead, Clemens says, “I used to really enjoy rolling down my windows when I was approaching because it would smell like Srirarcha, it was great.”
But in Irwindale? The olfactory experience of arriving at the new plant, which he visited as recently as last Thursday, was unmemorable. “I didn’t notice any smell at all outside, but certainly when you get inside the factory, especially inside the mixing room,” he said of smelling the jalapenos.
“Only when you’re in the mixing room where they’re chopping it and mixing the ingredients is where I coughed a little bit,” he said.
Visitors don hairnets, shoe covers and safety goggles, as they might on any factory visit. In the mixing room, workers wear masks that Clemens described as being more like a housepainter’s protective gear than any sort of military gasmask.
In a more concentrated form, the clouds residents say are emanating from the plant could necessitate a gasmask, however. Capsaicin, the compound that makes chiles spicy, is the same chemical used in manufacturing pepper spray.
The Scoville scale is used to measure the heat of different chile varieties, with mild pepperoncini ranging between 100 and 900 heat units, while the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the world’s hottest variety, is capable of reaching 2 million heat units. As for Jalapenos like those used in Sriracha? They’re down on the low end of the Scoville scale, averaging between 3,500 and 8,000.
So a cloud of aromatized jalapeno is by no means as potent as, say, the pepper spray that was used on Occupy protesters at UC Davis in 2011, which ranges between 2 and 5.3 million Scoville units, starting where the apex of naturally occurring chile heat leaves off.
That’s not to say that lesser chiles, chiles that don’t approach protest-breaking heat potential, can’t do some damage. For the DIY/survivalist type, you can make your own pepper spray out of commercial chiles. And then there’s a mildly racist-sounding syndrome observed in workers who regularly handle hot peppers called Hunan Hand Syndrome, a form of severe dermatitis. And a 2004 paper published by the North Carolina Medical Journal on the health effects of pepper sprays says that repeated, low-dose exposures to hot chiles are associated with “chronic respiratory symptoms and illness,” including runny nose, sneezing, cough, weight loss, burning skin, and “bronchoconstriction.”
Like Clemens, Huy Fong says that no odor is escaping the facility, according to city attorney Fred Galante. He told the AP that a company rep said “their employees worked in similar olfactory settings without complaint.”
I called Mace to ask how they kept the capsaicin at bay in its pepper spray production facilities, because what works for non-lethal weapon grade chile gas should work just fine for a Sriracha facility, right? But the company has blanket policy of not talking to media.
Rooster sauce lovers will have to hope that something gets figured out, because if production is halted, it might be time to ration the Sriracha.
“It’s harvest season, and they get all the chiles now and process them and process them for the next year, Clemens reiterated. “If they have to halt production, I would assume it would mess things up for next year.”