Public health officials in California have taken the drastic step of ordering the maker of Sriracha chili sauce to cease selling the popular condiment in the green-topped squeeze bottle for a month even though no one has ever complained about any problems with the sauce.
The shipping hold, which could mean some store shelves will be empty until mid-January, turned a spotlight on one of America’s most unusual corporate success stories: the tale of an ethnic Chinese culinary entrepreneur whose success and company growth has suddenly – and, to some, oddly – run into regulatory roadblocks.
More immediately, the California Department of Public Health alarmed chefs, hot sauce fans, and foodies around the US when it ordered David Tran’s Rosemead, Calif.-based company, Huy Fong, to stop shipping its ubiquitous chili-sugar-vinegar concoction so the state can test whether sauce made at a new production facility is safe to splash on food.
“I always appreciate concern for people’s safety, but at what point does it become overbearing?” says a concerned Randy Clemens, author of “The Sriracha Cookbook.” “The timing is rather strange, and it does seem crippling, the way this thriving business that’s been going for 33 years can be more or less shut down and have its brand damaged.”
According to Food Production Daily, a trade publication, regulators agree that no one has ever complained of getting sick from eating the sauce and that there’s no need for a recall. Instead, they blamed a new manufacturing process at a new plant as the reason to inspect whether the uncooked sauce could be a medium for harmful microbial growth.
“We have reached resolution with the company and the owners have agreed to adopt this hold period before shipping, in order to meet federal regulations,” Anita Gore, deputy director of the Office of Public Affairs for the California Department of Public Health, told Food Production Daily. Ms. Gore told the Associated Press that the order followed a review of a new manufacturing line at the company’s plant, and that similar companies have faced the same requirements.
California has a long tradition of exceeding national standards when it comes to regulation of public health. But in the case of Sriracha, at least some policy experts wonder whether regulators went too far, especially since the move will create financial losses for suppliers, and could even taint the Sriracha brand without any evidence or testimony that it’s a problematic recipe.
Sriracha sauce “is a great American story, it’s the American dream: he uses these fresh peppers, quality ingredients, nobody is complaining, there’s no problem with the safety of the product and then boom, all of a sudden the state decides he’s got to stop selling it,” says Daren Bakst, an agriculture regulation expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, in Washington.
“Bottom line is that other businesses and consumers need to understand the rationale for this: did the state overreach, was it using sound science, were there other options, was it just arbitrary? Regardless of whether you care about this sauce, you do care about what the business environment is going to be like in your state.”
The state has kept mum about the details of the shipping hold – at least in part, they say, to protect Tran’s “trade secrets.” But he decision’s impact on the company was compounded by a court-ordered shutdown of Tran’s Irwindale factory, where he grinds chilis.
Neighbors to the plant testified that they were experiencing breathing difficulties from capsaicin mist. Capsaicin is an active compound in chili peppers that is irritating to humans and other mammals. Last month, a California judge ordered Tran to stop grinding chilis at the plant until the issues could be ironed out, though ultimately the ruling didn’t impact production because Tran had already ground all the chilis he needs for the coming year’s production.
Tran felt baffled by the city’s suit against him, telling the Pasadena Star-News that “we don’t make tear gas here.” He added an in open letter that he’s just a humble entrepreneur interested in creating jobs and supporting American-made products.
Tran wrote that he had an “odd feeling” after signing an economic development deal with the city to build a plant there, especially when the odor complaints came up shortly after he opened the doors.
“After the odor complaints from last year, I believed the City of Irwindale acted severely toward us without a real investigation into the matter,” he wrote.
The newly imposed shipping block has already created financial pain up and down the Sriracha supply chain, meanwhile, with one distributor telling the Los Angeles Times that he’ll lose at least $300,000 in sales. A shortage could also hurt the company itself, since copycat sauces are beginning to proliferate and give hot sauce consumers choices.
Consumers are taking note of the looming sauce shortage, at least judging by the popular #srirachapocalypse Twitter tag.
“Forgot to mention yesterday's lunchtime excitement: i saw a server chase down a customer not b/c he didn't pay ... but b/c he tried stealing a bottle of sriracha. what's next? seeing used bottles of sriracha popping up on craigslist?” Timo Chen wrote on Facebook.
Tran, who made sauces in his hometown in Vietnam before fleeing as a refugee, began making Sriracha within a month of landing in the US, in 1980. At the time, he came to California for the ready supply of fresh peppers. He has never spent a dime on advertising.
Tran personally only puts it on pho, the traditional Vietnamese soup, but Sriracha is now being incorporated by high-end chefs and home cooks alike into dishes like a pork belly bun – pork belly patty on a mini crunch bun, sriracha leather, sriracha pickle, crunchy toasted garlic, fish sauce spread, and fresh cilantro – served at the 1st Annual Sriracha Festival in October.
The transformation of Sriracha from cult foodie icon to mainstream condiment – the bottle with the green cap and the rooster is now unmistakable – comes in part from what Southern food writer John T. Edge in 2009 called “the lure of Asian authenticity.” But, Mr. Edge adds in a New York Times piece, that “it may be best understood as an American sauce, a polyglot puree with roots in different places and peoples.”
Part of Sriracha’s charm, but also apparent vulnerability, is that the company grinds the chili-garlic mixture into the recognizable red color without cooking it. A hearty dose of vinegar, however, puts the pH at a level that should be untenable for microscopic agents.
The goal of Huy Fong, Tran has said, is straightforward: “Make enough fresh chili sauce so that everyone who wants Huy Fong can have it. Nothing more.”