Irwindale council delays decision on Sriracha factory's fate

Irwindale council delays decision on Sriracha factory's fate
Huy Fong Foods' packaging area, shown in an October 2013 file photo. (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

The Irwindale City Council voted Wednesday night to postpone a decision to declare the Sriracha hot sauce factory a public nuisance.

The decision came despite the urging of City Manager John Davidson and contract attorney Adrian Guerra, who said declaring sauce maker Huy Fung Foods a public nuisance would provide the necessary leverage to demand changes at the factory.

Council members said they wanted to give the company time to work with the South Coast Air Quality Management District to identify a solution to the factory's spicy smell problem, which has prompted ongoing complaints from residents and a lawsuit by the city last year.


"We have never taken any action to shut down the factory," said Mayor Mark Breceda. "But when we get complaints, we want to work with the company to fix them."

Huy Fong Foods founder David Tran said he was pleased with the council's decision, and said he admits there is an issue with the smell. But he continued to express doubt that the smell was harmful and invited the public to tour the factory.

"I have been operating for 33 years and now I'm opening my doors for everyone," Tran said. "People should just come and see."

Air quality officials appeared at the meeting and told the City Council that they would work with both parties to find a technical solution.

Spokesman Sam Atwood said the agency doesn't usually get involved with cases in which there has been no air quality violation, but this was a special case that had ramifications for the regional economy. The agency hosted city and Huy Fong officials at its headquarters earlier this month to discuss the problem.

"We have a situation where a factory is threatened with a shutdown and the solution could be very straightforward," Atwood said.

Dr. Paul Rosenfeld, an environmental chemist with SWAPE, a Santa Monica consulting firm, presented his research about the smell on behalf of the city. He said it's possible that the smell is affecting fewer people at certain times because of certain weather conditions and air patterns above the factory.

Sriracha sauce contains garlic, which is sulfurous; peppers, which contain capsacin; and vinegar, which is acidic, Rosenfeld said. The harmful odors fill the factory's large empty spaces and are released intermittently into the surrounding community, Rosenfeld said.

"These odors change over time depending on what's going on," Rosenfeld argued.

Few people at the meeting could agree about whether the smell was harmful, and arguments broke out frequently outside the council chambers.

Sriracha fans appeared in droves, including the grower of Sriracha's peppers and the author of a Sriracha cookbook.

About 50 people, most of them employees of the factory, protested before the meeting and lined up to urge city officials to work with Huy Fong Foods to find a solution without shutting down the company.

They waved fluorescent orange and green signs saying "save our Sriracha" and "what really stinks is the city of Irwindale."

"If they shut down the factory, I'll have nothing to eat," said Fung-Wei Lee, an employee of the factory.

Nearly everyone sported red "Team Sriracha" and "Save Sriracha" shirts. One employee even brought his baby to the podium as he spoke.

"He's only 9 months," said Jerry Tinaza, 25, holding his baby. "And David Tran has given me a job. This is the reality of what you're doing," Tinaza said to the council.

Residents who complained of inflamed lungs and swollen glands showed up to speak against the company.

"I have an infection that I can't get rid if and the chili smell is irritating it," said Dena Zepeda, waving a crumpled paper she said was a doctor's note. "It is a health concern to me."

Air quality officials said the results of their testing will be available in mid-March. The council will take up the issue again on April 1.

Twitter: @frankshyong