by Jack Hornickel
The saga of Sriracha, the addictive sauce that waters my eye just at hearing the name, came to a close earlier this summer. The manufacturer of liquid fire, Huy Fong Foods, Inc., had come under increasing legal pressure from its host city, Irwindale, California, to turn down the spice — not in the product itself, but in the surrounding airspace. The city had attempted enjoin Sriracha production as a public nuisance after receiving numerous complaints from the factory’s neighbors. In response, hot sauce junkies and restaurateurs were shocked and took to hoarding the familiar rooster-clad, green-capped bottles. Ultimately, after some legal and commercial posturing, the parties came to an undisclosed agreement to keep the Sriracha facility up and running, and the city dismissed its lawsuit.
Sriracha is truly an American success story. David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant, launched Huy Fong in 1980. Named after the vessel that carried its founder to the United States, Huy Fong began production in Los Angeles and later moved to Rosemead, CA. In 2010, the company broke ground on a new $40 million, 650,000-square-foot factory in Irwindale, CA that would at least triple its production capacity.
It took less than two years for the complaints to start rolling in. Neighbors bemoaned of standard respiratory ailments − coughing, sneezing, burning throats − but also more alarming agitations – headaches, bloody noses, even swollen glands. According to Irwindale residents, the chili sauce production really disrupted daily life. One resident resorted to popping heartburn medication before her morning jog. Others reported a looming red cloud of terror, a la John Carpenter’s The Fog. Overall, at least 18 households filed formal complaints with the city.
The antagonizing odor was allegedly caused by the production of Huy Fong’s flagship Sriracha sauce. Moreover, the trouble was intensified by Huy Fong’s production methods. In order to preserve the fresh spiciness of its red jalapeno peppers, the saucier grinds an entire year’s worth of peppers in the three months of harvest season! At peak production, about 40 truckloads of California red jalapenos are delivered and processed each day. During these months, residents report that the offensive odor can be irritating half of a mile away.
On October 21, 2013, after the conclusion of that year’s harvest season, the City of Irwindale filed a complaint against Huy Fong. It alleged that the sauce manufacturer constituted a public nuisance by creating conditions that were injurious to public health, or were indecent and offensive to the senses, such that it interfered with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property. A judge then granted a preliminary injunction on November 26, halting any Sriracha operation that would cause emission of offensive odors. Despite recognizing the lack of credible evidence proving causation, the court reasonably inferred that the irritating odors were a result of Huy Fong’s hot sauce. (Ya think?) The court then determined that the city and its residents would be irreparably harmed if the plant continued to operate pending trial.
As this year’s pepper harvest season approached, on March 21, 2014, Irwindale turned up the heat and amended its complaint to include a breach of contract claim. The city alleged that Huy Fong violated its operating permit by emitting the offensive odors. City attorneys stressed that this was not a separate attack, but rather an additional legal theory by which the city could halt the extreme irritation of its residents. Yet, of the available remedies for a breach of contract, a court is least likely to order specific performance. Thus, Irwindale was most likely adding this theory to its case so that, even if it lost on the theory of public nuisance, it could hold the threat of monetary damages over the hot sauce producer.
During the court proceedings, Huy Fong did its fair share of posturing. Employing 60 full-time and 200 seasonal workers, the sauce manufacturer is an economic staple in the city populated by about 1,400. Leveraging its position as a coveted manufacturing-sector job-creator, Huy Fong hosted a group of Texan officials from the state’s agricultural, economic development, and tourism departments, a clear indication that it was considering a move. Sufficiently spooked, the City of Irwindale, with the assistance of the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, brokered a deal in a closed-door meeting. The details of the bargain are yet unknown, but Irwindale dismissed its lawsuit on June 4th, and Huy Fong has been engaged in another chili melee this summer.
The lesson: If your food production creates a public nuisance, you’d better be properly represented, employ a lot of people, and make a damned good product.