Update: Your Sriracha's safe. Judge denies attempt to close hot sauce plant

South Coast Air Quality Management District spokesman Sam Atwood observes vapor rising from a machine used to identify organic compounds in air samples.
South Coast Air Quality Management District spokesman Sam Atwood observes vapor rising from a machine used to identify organic compounds in air samples.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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9:45 a.m.: Judge denies attempt to close Sriracha plant

A judge has denied a Southern California factory town's attempt to shut down production of the popular Sriracha chili sauce.

City News Service reports the judge rejected Irwindale's initial bid Thursday to cease operations at the Huy Fong Foods plant. The city sought the closure to reduce the pungent smell of pepper and garlic fumes emanating from the factory.

The sprawling 650,000-square-foot factory processes some 100 million pounds of peppers a year into Sriracha and two other popular Asian food sauces.

Residents have complained the odor gives them headaches, burns their throat and makes their eyes water.

Huy Fong executives say they've been cooperating with the city to reduce the smell.

— Associated Press

8:22 a.m.: High-tech odor cops follow their noses to sniff out smells

South Coast Air Quality Management District inspectors struck out twice when they went hunting for chili pepper fumes that some residents said were escaping from the Irwindale plant that makes the popular Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce.

But that didn't stop the city this week from suing Huy Fong Foods after a few of the industrial town's estimated 1,400 residents complained that fumes from truckloads of freshly crushed red jalapeño chilis were forcing them indoors. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge could decide Thursday whether to grant the city of Irwindale's request to cease operations at the factory until it can reduce the pungent smell of pepper and garlic fumes emanating from the plant.

The AQMD has one of the most high-tech air quality labs around, but when it comes to detecting nuisance smells caused by food, they do it the old fashioned way: they follow their noses.

Sure, they could go out to a location that is reportedly the source of an offensive odor, and open the valve on a stainless steel vacuum sphere to suck in a sample of the air. Back in the lab, they could freeze the sample with liquid nitrogen to reduce its volume and then vaporize it, analyzing the compounds with a machine called a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer. That works on dozens of organic compounds.

But a molecule of capsaicin – the pungent compound in chili peppers that can burn your tongue and sting your eyes – is too big for the AQMD's advanced machines to be of use.

"This is a good example where the human nose is maybe a better gauge of nuisance odors than a sophisticated instrument," said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood.

Food-related smells are a small portion of the 6,000 to 9,000 complaints the AQMD fields every year, said Jill Whynot, an assistant deputy executive officer of the AQMD who oversees inspectors. Landfills, garbage transfer stations, rendering plants, bakeries, coffee roasters, and fast food places tend to generate most of the food-related investigations.

The complaints that are most likley to be substantiated by the investigators are those reported to 1-800-CUT-SMOG while the smell is still present, and that affect six or more households. 

"Odors can be fleeting, the problem can be short-lived, the wind can change, and it's often a challenge to track down the source of a problem," Whynot said.

The 11 complaints to the AQMD about the chili sauce plant were from five households, and were referring an incident that was days or a week old, said Atwood, the AQMD spokesman.
To help locate the source, inspectors use the AQMD's publicly-available website showing factories and other smell-producing locations. Then investigators drive in concentric circles, stopping often to sniff the air to locate the cause.
After years of fielding complaints, Whynot concludes that some of the worst smells really start at City Hall – with poor land use decisions. The AQMD doesn't have any authority over that.
Irwindale provided $15 million in financing to persuade Huy Fong Foods to build the Sriracha plant two years ago.  

Up on the roof of his factory, owner David Tran points out carbon filters on vents that he says should remove 90 percent of the odors. But now he's out of ideas, and frustrated that the city has sued to shut him down until he comes up with a plan to smell-proof the factory.

Tran says, it's not like the city didn't know what it was getting.
If the factory isn't putting out a chili smell, Tran said: "it means we're not making hot sauce."

— Sharon McNary