The public just got some new insight into one of the last year's spiciest (and fishiest) political kerfuffles: the push by the city council of Irwindale, California to shut down Huy Fong Foods, the makers of Sriracha hot sauce. The tireless freedom-of-information requesters at MuckRock yesterday published internal council documents, revealing theatrically furious communication among the local government officials and a desire to exploit regulations to force the company into submission.
First, to recap the situation. The squabbling began last October when reports emerged that some residents of the 1,500-person industrial town experienced watery eyes and sore throats due to the smells emitted by the Huy Fong factory. However, L.A. Weekly's Dennis Romero was skeptical, noting that "most of the odor complaints have come from four nearby homes, one of which is occupied by the relative of a city councilman. That councilman, Hector Ortiz, recused himself from discussion and voting on the matter because, he says, he owns property near the plant." And, the city was trying to sell property next to the factory at the time.
The newly revealed memos and emails show that some members of government were actually "happy to report the scent of chilies" emanating when production began in 2012, but, a year later Ortiz and Councilman David Fuentes, who also lived near the factory (and also ultimately recused himself from the matter), saw a total shutdown as the first and only appropriate course of action.
"I just received notice that the odor at this place is very strong. We must proceed with SHUT DOWN immediately," demanded Ortiz in an email, despite the fact that he had previously applauded how much safer that part of town had become since the $80 million business moved in.
Fuentes was even more adamant. "THIS PROBLEM NEEDS TO BE TAKEN CARE OF NOW, NOT LATER!!!!!," he emailed his fellow council members in October. Notably, he also suggested that "if we need to shut them down for non compliance, then let's do what we have to do."
Although it's not clear exactly what Fuentes meant by "non compliance" or if the council made moves based on his plot, the city did sue Huy Fong and got a judge to order a partial shutdown in November, even though that the judge acknowledged a "lack of credible evidence" regarding the health risk claims. Likewise, California's health regulators stepped in and changed their own food rules in December as they demanded a 30-day hold on operations, which created fear of a national Sriracha shortage.
The fight dragged on until this May when, following bad press and relocation bids by economically freer locales, the city backpedaled on their claim that the Sriracha maker was a "public nuisance" and agreed that new air filters on the factory were a sufficient remedy to the situation.
Check out Reason TV's coverage of the Sriracha scandal here: