Chile Reception: Huy Fong Gets Burned


Millions of people love it. Taystee, a character in Netflix’s made-for-TV drama, “Orange Is the New Black,” wanted it for the prison. It’s everywhere. From the looks of it, this condiment is almost as ubiquitous as ketchup, even appearing in non-Asian restaurants and doubtless millions of homes.

Huy Fong Foods’ sriracha sauce, more familiarly known as Rooster sauce, has been manufactured in Rosemead, California, since 1986. It’s the creation of an ex-Vietnamese farmer David Tran who couldn’t find a hot sauce to his liking when he immigrated to the U.S. The story of the sauce’s rise to prominence on the American table is the stuff of legend, spawning the documentary “Sriracha.” In Los Angeles, a festival entirely devoted to sriracha sauce (apparently, not only Huy Fong’s) was held only two weeks ago, drawing so many fans that the line to get in went on for blocks. It’s showing up as an ingredient in common snacks. How about sriracha candy canes? I bet the kids will be surprised. I’ve posted about sriracha popcorn before. And now this …

(Image from absolutelyfobulous.com)

It was inevitable then that the Rosemead facility would be hard pressed to meet swelling demand for its products, which includes an equally outstanding sambal oelek. Thus, in 2010, prompted by the city of Irwindale’s favorable terms, Huy Fong built a bigger plant there. The new facility would effectively triple production.

The story doesn’t end there though.

It seems that Irwindale residents are not so hot about the sauce. Complaints have been filed by neighbors suffering from respiratory problems, irritated throats, headaches and stinging eyes, not to mention putting up with the smell, all this the fallout from processing tons of fresh red jalapeño chiles during an intensive three-month harvest-to-bottle cycle, starting in September. These complaints were hard to ignore, especially when children were involved. Citing a “public nuisance” problem, the city attorney filed a suit with the Los Angeles County Superior Court that asked for a temporary restraining order to stop further production until the issue could be resolved. On October 31, the court denied the injunction but set a date of November 22 to make a decision on how to proceed.

I’m definitely in favor of resolving the health issues involved here. This is not something to be taken lightly. As an example, the roasting of chiles causes workers and residents in Hatch, legendary for its production of New Mexican chiles, to develop respiratory problems. But, let’s take a minute and ask a few questions.

Wasn’t it the city of Irwindale that made overtures to Huy Fong to build a plant there in the first place? Was Huy Fong required to install anti-pollution equipment as part of the deal (so far, nothing in public statements indicates that it was)? If not, did the city not consider that there might be health issues? In short, it seems that Irwindale needs to take some responsibility in all this, rather than being duplicitous and playing politics.

I suppose that Huy Fong could take matters into its own hands and threaten to leave the area for friendlier turf unless concessions were made. You know, strong-arm the city like Boeing is doing with the state of Washington and the machinists’ union to get its way with the 777X program. After all, the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, has made its own overtures to Huy Fong in the wake of the Irwindale incident. I can hear it now at Pat’s and Geno’s, Whiz ‘n sree wit.

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