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Sriracha smell stirs up heated debate in Irwindale

Posted at 5:44 PM, Oct 30, 2013
and last updated 2013-10-31 07:44:19-04

IRWINDALE, Calif. (CNN) - One man's hot sauce is another man's hell.

The city of Irwindale, California has filed a lawsuit asking for Huy Fong Foods to cease production of its iconic Sriracha sauce after residents complained that smells emanating from the factory have caused them physical harm and driven them from their homes.

While Huy Fong is not the originator of Sriracha, the company's distinctive green-topped, rooster-bedecked rendition of the Thai chili sauce has become a staple on mainstream grocery store shelves, professional kitchen lines, restaurant tables and cafeteria condiment stands since the company's CEO and founder, David Tran, fired up U.S. production in 1983.

Consumer devotion to the brand burns deeply enough to have inspired two cookbooks ("The Sriracha Cookbook" and "The Veggie-Lover's Sriracha Cookbook"), a limited-edition flavor of Lay's potato chips, embroidery, jewelry other art projects.

A Kickstarter for a documentary on Sriracha exceeded its $5000 goal by over $16,000, web humorist Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal wrote and illustrated an ode to his beloved condiment (shared on Facebook by over 300,000 people), and YouTube veritably sizzles with songs, reviews, skits and odes to "rooster sauce."

But the pepper sauce that kindles such adoration in its fans is reportedly scorching the olfactory systems of the factory's neighbors. According to the complaint filed with Los Angeles Superior Court by the city of Irwindale, the stench of cooking peppers isn't just unpleasant -- it's painful.

Watery eyes, stinging throats and headaches are par for the course, say city officials who have been fielding complaints since the Huy Fong factory kicked up its season's pepper production. The company produced 20 million bottles of Sriracha in 2012 (that's $60 million dollars worth of pepper sauce) with no advertising -- just the passionate word-of-tingling-mouth passed on by its legions of fans. For most of its lifespan, Huy Fong produced the condiment in a residential area of Rosemead, California with no issues, but moved to Irwindale earlier this year.

All of the peppers (hybrid jalapeños which are blended with vinegar, salt, sugar and garlic) for the year's run of sauce are processed from September to December after the harvest, and that's when the complaints kicked in.

Neighbor Edward Anthony told KCAL, "Every morning it smells like chili powder. It's irritating." At least 30 complaints were received by the city, and officials kicked off an investigation.

Irwindale city manager John Davidson says that inspectors have found the interior of the factory to be fine, but "You go to the exterior, and it's horrible," he told KCAL.

The city's lawsuit would require Huy Fong to cease production until it files a plan to lessen the impact on the community -- and that has Sriracha devotees hot under the collar.

"The Days of a Sriracha Black Market Are Approaching" declared a headline in The Atlantic, while social media was ablaze with talk of hoarding, at-home recipes and potential price hikes.

The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman told CNN in an e-mail,

"I personally would relish in the opportunity to live in a neighborhood bathed in rooster sauce. The thought of watching a blood-red sunrise soaked in clouds of red peppers and garlic would pretty much be my ideal morning. I feel like our country is still recovering from the near Twinkie extinction in 2012, and now we get hit with this?

The dinosaurs had their meteorite. We've got our Sriracha shortage. If a Sriracha shortage isn't one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, then I don't know what is. Now is the time to stock your fallout shelters full of tasty rooster juice. The end is nigh."

But before consumers start building armored sauce transport tanks and installing Sriracha kegs in their rec rooms, they should know that engineers are at work on a solution. Adam Holliday, director of operations for Huy Fong Foods told the Los Angeles Times that a consultant suggested a $600,000 cleaning system that would burn the pepper from the air before it breached the factory walls, but it's a "big expense" and the company is in search of its own solution.

A judge is expected to rule on the shutdown on Thursday. Perhaps if it doesn't go Huy Fong's way, the company should turn to their fans for a creative end to this burning issue.

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