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4.11.13

Sriracha and hipster environmental racism

It has been well established that polluting facilities are disproportionately forced on communities of color. This pattern of environmental racism ought to be a source of grave concern for anyone of a progressive political bent. It's an easy position to take when the pollution comes from toxic waste dumps and coal-fired power plants. But it all falls apart when the culprit is the factory that produces Sriracha, the hot sauce that has become essential to the hipster way of life.

The issue begins with complaints by residents of Irwindale, California that the Sriracha factory was producing noxious fumes that caused severe eye irritation. Irwindale is 90% Hispanic, suggesting that this case could be seen as a potential case study of environmental racism, highlighting how polluting industry (of which there is a lot in Irwindale) gets placed on the doorsteps of people of color. The city has taken Sriracha maker Huy Fong Foods to court over the issue, unsuccessfully seeking an injunction to shut the plant down while the case proceeds.

But instead of an environmental racism angle, news coverage has taken a very different tone. The message of nearly every article has been "OMG they're coming for your hot sauce!" We have been warned of a looming Sriracha shortage, while the situation has been dubbed a "Sriracha apocalypse" -- meaning an apocalypse for foodies deprived of their condiment, not for the plant's neighbors getting a facefull of fumes. The city of Irwindale is consistently presented as just killjoy jerkfaces trying to spoil everyone's spicy fun. A variety of other cities, from Philadelphia to Denton, have invited Huy Fong to relocate, again focused more on the coolness of the product and the hipster cred of saving Sriracha than on the environmental risks the plant is allegedly producing. When the environmental and health impacts of the plant are acknowledged, it's in a sarcastic and ironic way, as if to say "yeah, yeah, we all care about the environment, but talking about real structural inequalities is so uncool."

The Atlantic compiles a set of White Whine-worthy tweets on the subject, presented with just enough ironic detachment that they can laugh with the tweeters while maintaining the cover story that they're laughing at them. And while humorously exaggerated panic over a Sriracha supply interruption is adequate to get yourself quoted in this national magazine, nobody thought to ask any of the people suffering burning eyes from the factory what they thought about the situation.

The contamination from the Sriracha plant may not turn out to be as big a deal as alleged, and Huy Fong has seemed to make some serious efforts to control the plant's emissions. But it's telling that so many people's first reaction was not to take the claims of possible environmental racism seriously, but rather to panic about the possible loss of their hot sauce.

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