A hot sauce factory has generated quite a stir within the community of Irwindale, California. Owned by Huy Fong Foods, the factory manufactures Sriracha, a hot sauce made from sun-ripened chilies that have been ground into a smooth paste and mixed with garlic.
Sriracha has seen a huge spike in popularity over the last few years. It originated in the 1980s in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, where it was created by a Vietnamese Chinese immigrant. Since then, it has exploded onto the condiment scene. Huy Fong Foods estimates that the sauce accounted for more than $60 million in sales for the 2012 fiscal year. Considering the 28-ounce bottle costs less than seven dollars, the factory is turning out a lot of Sriracha.
The process of grinding the sun-ripened chilies and garlic creates a strong odor that citizens say causes their eyes to water and their throats to burn.
Unfortunately, though economically sustainable, Huy Fong Foods’s growth has encountered some roadblocks within the neighboring community. The factory is capable of producing up to 200,000 bottles of Sriracha per day, but the process of grinding the sun-ripened chilies and garlic creates a strong odor that citizens say causes their eyes to water and their throats to burn. While the rest of the country continues to enjoy the delicious sauce, the people of Irwindale are buying throat lozenges and rubbing their eyes, thanks to the factory’s emissions.
The City moved to enjoin Defendant Huy Fong Foods “from operating or using the property generally.”
Huy Fong Foods began production in the Irwindale factory in 2012. In October 2013 the South Coast Air Quality Management District received eleven complaints about the factory’s odor. That same month the City of Irwindale (“the City”) filed suit against Huy Fong Foods in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. The City moved to enjoin (PDF) Huy Fong Foods “from operating or using the property generally.”
Following an order to show cause, the court issued its ruling (PDF) on November 26, 2013. The court denied the City’s motion to enjoin Huy Fung Foods from general use of the property. However, an injunction was “granted to the extent that defendant [was] enjoined from emitting anything that causes odors or are odors in themselves.” The court ordered Huy Fong Foods to immediately retool its site operations in order to reduce odors.
Despite a lack of links to any legitimate health problems, the court found the odors to be “extremely annoying, irritating, and offensive to the senses warranting consideration as a public nuisance.” The court determined that irreparable harm may occur should the City’s motion for injunction be denied. Huy Fong Foods was ordered to make alterations to the factory’s site operations in order to meet certain air quality standards. The court also noted that the City would likely be successful in a future cause of action for public nuisance.
In order to qualify as an enjoinable public nuisance, an interference must be both substantial and unreasonable.
Is Huy Fong Food’s emission of odorous spices really sufficiently egregious to be labeled a “public nuisance?” In People ex. rel. Gallo v. Acuna, 929 P.2d 596, (Cal. 1997), the Supreme Court of California noted that “not every interference with collective social interests constitutes a public nuisance.” Thus, in order to qualify for injunction, an interference must be both substantial and unreasonable.
Substantial interference exists when a defendant’s conduct constitutes a real and appreciable invasion of plaintiff’s interests. The invasion must be “definitely offensive, seriously annoying[,] or intolerable.” This is an objective determination that considers whether normal persons in the affected vicinity would be substantially annoyed or disturbed by the situation.
An interference is unreasonable when the social utility of the activity is outweighed by the gravity of the harm it inflicts. Again, this is an objective determination that accounts for all factors influencing the situation. It asks whether a reasonable person, viewing the circumstances impartially, would consider the interference unreasonable. Although the mere act of grinding chilies and garlic is not enjoinable, the magnitude of the process and its effecting odor may constitute an enjoinable invasion.
In the Sriracha case, the mere act of grinding chilies and garlic is not enjoinable. However, the magnitude of the process and its effecting odor may constitute an enjoinable invasion.
An Irwindale resident told the Los Angeles Times that the smell from the factory carries into his front yard, making his nose run and causing him to feel slightly sick. Yet an employee working in the factory who does not wear a mask and says the smell does not bother him. Additionally, inspectors surveyed the area and failed to detect any odor. Regardless, eleven complaints about the odor were received during one week in October 2013.
Another twist in the Sriracha case is the fact that a number of manufacturing facilities are located in Irwindale. The City is home to a dog food manufacturing plant as well as the MillerCoors Brewery, but the people of Irwindale acquiesce to the presence of odors emitted by these factories.
The presence of other factories has the potential to either help or harm Huy Fong Foods’s case. On one hand, it could advance the factory’s argument by showing the hypocritical nature of the complaints. For example, the people put up with the smell of dog food and yeast, but they draw the line at chilies and garlic? Or, this fact could undermine the company’s argument by highlighting the Sriracha odor’s severity by comparison: it is worse than dog food and yeast.
Overall, the cost of living with the unforgiving emissions is far worse than the cost of shutting down the factory.
The social benefit of the Sriracha factory is twofold: it provides employment for those in the community and produces a popular condiment. However, the harm caused by the factory has exceeded its social benefit. The citizens are miserable because they are forced to face the harsh odor of chilies and garlic. Overall, the cost of living with the unforgiving emissions is far worse than the cost of shutting down the factory and forcing the company to move. Since the odorous emissions are both substantial and unreasonable, the court was correct in assuming that the City would be successful should it pursue a cause of action for public nuisance.
The two sides met on May 28, 2014, and negotiated their differences.
The fight between the company and the City Council has cooled for the time being. Huy Fong Foods threatened to find a different city, and the City responded. The parties met on May 28, 2014, and negotiated their differences. Settlement occurred just in time: the factory appeared to be headed to Texas. State politicians had recently toured the factory in hopes that they could encourage the company to relocate.
Huy Fong Foods installed a new air filtration system with stronger filters in an effort to decrease the impact of the odors and help the company’s public relations. The factory will not process chilies again until August, so the citizens of Irwindale must wait until then to see if the nuisance is truly gone.