In California, a hot topic: Sriracha red chili sauce

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IRWINDALE, Calif. — On days when thousands of jalapeno peppers are ground to make the hot, tangy sauce favored by chefs nationwide, a fine red powder coats Dena Zepeda's silver Nissan and, when she's outside, collects in her ears.

Zepeda, 57, of Irwindale, said that in August, glands between her jaw and her ears began to swell and hurt. It wasn't hard to draw a connection to Huy Fong Foods, which turns peppers and garlic into its top-selling Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce less than 500 feet (150 meters) from her home.

A judge's order to cease operations causing odors at the plant threatens to push the closely held company out of business, according to Chief Executive Officer David Tran. The company is part of the $1 billion annual hot-sauce industry, led by Tabasco bottler McIlhenny and Frank's RedHot maker Reckitt Benckiser, according to market-research firm IBISWorld. Closing the plant would cost Huy Fong 200,000 bottles a day of the sauce, the bulk of its production.

"My four sons all like sriracha," said Zepeda, who has lived in Irwindale for 40 years and petitioned her Los Angeles suburb to sue Huy Fong. "They tell me, 'Mom, what are you doing to them?' I tell them, 'It's not about what I'm doing to them, it's about what they're doing to me.' "

Neighbors of Huy Fong's 628,000-square-foot plant began complaining a few months ago about pungent odors accompanied by stinging eyes, aggravated asthma symptoms and even nosebleeds, City Attorney Fred Galante said in an interview. The city traced the smell to Huy Fong's pepper- grinding, which typically takes place September to November, Galante said.

Irwindale, a city of 1,500 people about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, sued Huy Fong on Oct. 21, demanding that it shut down the plant until the odor problem was fixed. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert O'Brien on Nov. 26 ordered Huy Fong to make the changes.

While acknowledging "a lack of credible evidence" linking the health complaints to plant emissions, the odors "appear as extremely annoying, irritating and offensive to the senses warranting consideration as a public nuisance," O'Brien said in a preliminary injunction.

Tran, 69, and other company officials declined to be interviewed. A security guard at the plant gave out a statement from Tran saying Irwindale had "acted severely toward us without a real investigation."

After some complaints compared the odor to capsaicin, an ingredient in pepper spray, the company hung a pair of banners in front of its plant: "No Tear Gas Made Here."

Tran, a Vietnamese who immigrated to the U.S. in 1979, named the company for the ship that carried him. The sauce's bottle is decorated with a rooster, the symbol of Tran's birth year. The company expanded into its Irwindale plant from nearby Rosemead as its popularity grew.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who holds three Michelin stars at Jean- Georges in New York, uses sriracha sauce to spice up mayonnaise he mixes with peekytoe crab meat atop sourdough toast. Susan Feniger, founder of Los Angeles' Border Grill, incorporates the sauce into her deviled eggs.

The sauce is made with chili, sugar, salt, garlic and vinegar.

"The first thing you get is a little heat, but it balances out with some sweetness," said Scott Drewno, executive chef of The Source, Wolfgang Puck's modern Asian restaurant in Washington. "People like the hot and sweet together."

Drewno, named chef of the year by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington in 2010, uses sriracha in his top-selling appetizer, Spicy Tuna Tartare served in sesame- miso cones.

Arnold Vasquez, 40, who lives in a bungalow about 200 feet (60 meters) from the Huy Fong plant, said he likes the sauce's taste — it's the smell, and the effect on his throat and nose, that bothers him.

"If you have people over, outside barbecuing, some people will leave because it bothers them too much," Vasquez said. "With a little breeze, it irritates your throat, your nose. We're just worrying about whether it's a smell we're going to have to live with."

Across the street from Huy Fong's plant, the owners of Donlen's Liquor store say they and their customers don't mind the smell.

Irwindale has a median household income of $45,000, according to the city's website. Just 1 percent of the city's area is residential; the largest share devoted to industrial uses such as sand and gravel mining.

"They've helped clean up the neighborhood. A lot of local people work there," said Eui Bok "Bob" Whang, who has run the liquor store with his wife for 28 years. "People complain. Everyone complains. It doesn't bother me at all."