Last week California health regulators ordered the makers of Sriracha hot sauce to suspend operations for 30 days. The 30-day hold comes despite the fact the product has been on the market for more than three decades and that "no recall has been ordered and no pathogenic bacteria have been found[.]"
So what's the issue?
The problem, reports the Pasadena Star News, is that Sriracha is a raw food.
"Because Sriracha is not cooked, only mashed and blended, Huy Fong needs to make sure its bottles won't harbor dangerous bacteria," writes the Star News.
Aren't three decades of sales sufficient proof of that fact?
"The regulations outlining this process have been in existence for years," writes California health department official Anita Gore, in a statement she sent to L.A. Weekly, "but the modified production requirements were established for the firm this year."
In other words, the state changed the rules of the game.
Gore cites FDA regulations pertaining to acidified foods as a basis for her agency's action.
And she writes this: "A scheduled process is the process that is adequate for use under conditions of manufacture for a food in achieving and maintaining a food that will not permit the growth of microorganisms having public health significance. It includes control of pH and other critical factors that may be established by a competent process authority."
What in the name of all that is holy could Gore possibly mean by that?
"We cannot go into further detail about their process," she explains, "as it is a trade secret and cannot be divulged."
Thanks to the state-mandated shutdown, there's now a national Sriracha shortage.
How did this happen? From every indication, Sriracha appears to epitomize the California foodie dream of turning fresh, local ingredients into something wonderful.
An L.A. Times piece on the product earlier this year reported that "each chili is processed within a day of harvesting to ensure peak spiciness."
Is raw hot sauce like Sriracha some sort of nefarious new invention? Well, no.
The country's most popular hot sauce, Louisiana's ubiquitous Tabasco, is also made from raw ingredients, according to its website.
So if hot sauces are made using similar processes in other parts of the country, what's the big deal in California? The answer may lie in the company's increasingly sour relations with regulators.
Sriracha Rooster Sauce is made by Huy Fong Foods of Irwindale, Calif. The company's name comes from the freighter that company founder David Tran boarded when he fled communist Vietnam. Huy Fong Foods announced its move to Irwindale three years ago. The L.A. Times reported at the time that the move into a new $40 million building would "spice up a bleak lot in Irwindale" that had been vacant for a decade.
The company planned to use the new facility to help ramp up sales fivefold, from $60 million per year to more than $300 million in annual sales.
The Irwindale plant began cranking out hot sauce in summer 2012. But complaints soon followed.
Neighbors said the smell from the plant was too pungent. The city, which had welcomed Huy Fong Foods, soon filed a nuisance lawsuit against the company.
With the welcome mat seemingly no longer to be found in California, word has spread that Huy Fong is looking to leave the state. Rumors of a move to Philadelphia are swirling.
But before the company would consider such a move, they noted they'd want to "first research things like what the health department regulations are regarding acidized foods in Pennsylvania."
Could Sriracha succeed outside California? Of course it could. The state needs Huy Fong Foods a lot more than the company needs California. After all, the nation's growing love affair with Sriracha is well documented.
A 2009 N.Y. Times piece elegantly captured the origins and allure of Sriracha, calling it "an American sauce, a polyglot purée with roots in different places and peoples."
As the Times reported, it had become a staple for everyone from high-end chefs to Walmart shoppers. The humor website The Oatmeal referred to Sriracha as "a delicious blessing flavored with the incandescent glow of a thousand dying suns." Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin called it "the beloved 'cock sauce.'" And frenzied consumers, including food TV celebrity Alton Brown, have been busily hoarding the stuff thanks to California regulators.
I've long marveled at California's status as an unparalleled culinary innovator and agricultural powerhouse, while also lamenting the fact that the state's uncanny obsession with ever more pervasive and stringent regulations could spell doom for its unrivaled food climate.
Sometimes the state throws out small hints it might not want to strangle each of its businesses in red tape. In October, I cited several such examples in noting that California regulators and lawmakers are "capable not just of recognizing the needless regulatory encumbrances that strict food laws place on its entrepreneurs but also of relieving some of those burdens."
If Sriracha's founder is forced to move the company outside the state due to nothing more than the baseless fervor of California regulators, then the state's status as America's culinary innovator won't die today. It won't even die tomorrow. But I fear that the word "Sriracha" will be featured prominently in the state's obituary, alongside the sad news that its pointless death was by its own hand.