Sriracha Sauce is definitely sustainable enough to mention due to its unique farming methods and sustainably-minded product. However, we must be aware that Huy Fong Foods is not a paragon of excellence as there are a few spots of uncertainty about the practices/ethicality of the company. Since the Sriracha product market is only going to get more competitive, we (as lovers of the Sriracha Sauce) should make sure Huy Fong Foods is on its toes in terms of sustainability and labor practices by ‘voting with our wallet’. If you are personally not satisfied with Huy Fong Foods’s Sriracha rating due to your high standards, then please don’t buy from them and look for other even more sustainably-minded Sriracha/Hot-sauce brands like Sosusauces’ Srirachup. Otherwise, I would personally recommend buying Sriracha Sauce as they are much more sustainably-minded relative to the massive unsustainable food conglomerates frequently bemoaned about, and I believe with consumer pressure Huy Fong Foods will take the right steps as a family-run business known to be focused on product, not profits.
Sriracha Sauce is named after a specific district/city in Thailand (Si Racha) and was originally manufactured and created by David Tran after immigrating to the United States. Due to his inability to trademark the name ‘Sriracha’ (since it’s named after a place/city), the name ‘Sriracha’ is a ‘generic term’ according to U.S Patent Law and hence we see many companies such as Tabasco create their own unique iterations of the ‘Sriracha Sauce’.
SAUCE: Huy Fong Foods’s Sriracha Sauce is made of the following ingredients: fresh red jalapeño chili peppers, salt, garlic powder, sugar, distilled vinegar, sodium bisulfite, xanthan gum, and potassium sorbate. A highlight of this ingredient list is the usage of 'fresh' red chillis, which differs from other companies that tend to use 'dried' chillis. The three chemicals (sodium bisulfite, xanthan gum, and potassium sorbate) are all FDA approved and typically don't cause issues, but xanthan gum can sometimes cause lower blood sugar or digestive issues. The chemical-usage for Huy Fong Foods’s Sriracha Sauce seems to be to ‘at a minimum’ as these chemicals are necessary for shelf-life stabilization, but otherwise, it is not ‘over-the-top’ chemical-usage.
Importantly, the sriracha sauce does not contain added water or artificial colors. ‘No added water’ is great because water is a scarce resource worldwide and in California, so utilizing the minimum amount is a sustainable step forward. ‘No artificial colors’ from a health perspective is helpful because artificial coloring has been linked to brain, kidney, thyroid, and bladder cancer/tumors. From a sustainability perspective (and still a health perspective too), artificial colors are derived from petroleum, whose production causes a great number of emissions worldwide. Ultimately, this means Huy Fong Foods' Sriracha Sauce's color changes throughout the year depending on the season and what colors the chillis are (as it is not standardized into a year-round constant color from food coloring). I feel Sriracha made the sustainable choice here, and it is really important because it serves to show us that consumers don't like Sriracha any less without food coloring. Thus, corporate perceptions of 'flawless coloring necessary to hit consumer's standards' need to start changing because they're not as true as they would think. This is one of the reasons companies like Mars Inc. are working on removing food coloring from all their consumable products, even if it has been part of their corporate strategy for so long.
Furthermore, Sriracha is kosher-certified by California’s Rabbinical Council, so this is mindful of giving access for more people to experience Sriracha!
PACKAGING: The Sriracha Sauce is packaged within a plastic bottle with a green plastic cap. The plastic bottle has a recyclable symbol on it (at least the UK version does), but it is one that signifies a 'financial contribution', which means the manufacturer has made a financial contribution to European recycling services, but not necessarily that the product packaging itself is recyclable. Also, it is unknown if this applies to the green cap as well. Other hot sauce companies like Tabasco use glass bottles, which are much more recyclable, and it has not hindered Tabasco's worldwide domination, so there is less of an excuse and more of an imperative. This is something we should push Huy Fong Foods (and other hot sauce manufacturers) to consider and implement for greater product sustainability.
There are also some issues with using glass bottles, in terms of sustainability, (and you can read my review on Tabasco to learn more), but it is almost certainly a better alternative to plastic and if recycled correctly will lead to a net benefit for society.
Huy Fong Foods used to get their fresh red jalapeño chili peppers exclusively and directly (no intermediaries, which reduces emissions) from the Underwood Ranches (a 28-year partnership) over 2,000 acres of farmland, but recently a spat between the two companies has led to both companies going their separate ways (For context: Huy Fong Foods tried to lure away Underwood Ranches’ COO, which broke their partnership. Moreover, Underwood Ranches was overpaid $1.5 million and did not return that money. They settled all of this in courts). Now, Huy Fong Foods directly farms 1,700 acres of contracted land from Ventura County to Kern County in California (so still no intermediaries from farm to production-plant, at least).
All of the world's Huy Fong Foods' Sriracha Sauce is processed in the Huy Fong Foods processing facility located in Irwindale, California. This factory is 650,000 square feet and also serves as Huy Fong Foods’s headquarters. In some areas, Huy Fong Foods’s Sriracha Sauce is produced quite sustainably even as they strive to “Make a rich man’s sauce at a poor man’s price” (according to nextshark.com (http://nextshark.com/)).
For example, back when the Underwood Ranches were used, “employees hand weed[ed] the fields as much as possible to reduce pesticides used to keep the pepper weevils and other crop destroyers away” (according to https://farmtotablela.com/). Pesticide runoff is a big issue in the agricultural industry as things like rain and snowmelt can drift harmful chemicals into lakes, rivers, the ocean, and underground drinking supplies. Underwood Ranches reduced emissions and “eliminate[d] all trash from this process by simply recycling the ‘waste’ (rocks, twigs, unwanted chiles) right back into the soil" (according to https://farmtotablela.com/).
Furthermore, at the processing plant, "The warehouse section of the factory is 70% skylight, cutting down on electricity usage....The bottles and blue drums are all manufactured on-site, cutting waste and emissions down even further" (according to https://farmtotablela.com/).
There is not much public information on how chillis are made on Huy Fong Foods newly-contracted farmlands/ranches, so it is hard to know if the sustainable processes of Underwood Ranches have been continued in the production of the Sriracha Sauce.
Recently, there was a scandal where Huy Fong Food’s massive factory in Irwindale was causing local residents to complain about bloody noses and breathing/odor problems. The city of Irwindale soon filed a lawsuit against Huy Fong Foods. However, there is some contention on the validity of these claims as "The South Coast Air Quality Management District never issued a citation to the company" and "many of the 70 odor complaints the district had received came from just a handful of households" (according to times.com (http://times.com/)). Furthermore, "The first person to file a formal complaint was the relative of a city official" and "inspectors from the district visited the Huy Fong Foods factory and determined the company was not in violation of current air quality regulations" (according to times.com (http://times.com/)). Huy Fong Foods took steps to fight against this perceived misinformation by "open[ing] [their] doors for public tours to allow Irwindale residents to decide for themselves how strong the smell is" (transparency is important!) (according to times.com (http://times.com/)).
I found it interesting how Huy Fong Foods doesn’t employ salespeople or do much advertising/social media. Moreover, Huy Fong Foods produces "only a monthly pre-sold quota" (Los Angeles Times) in order to keep the sauce spicy through its known Chili sources in California. This is in its own way ‘sustainability’ too because it pushes against the status quo of ‘fast food fads/crazes’ wherein Huy Fong Foods tries to keep a healthy, but not intense, demand so that there will not be unsustainable/strained production. In fact, "He has refused to sell stock in the company and offers from financiers to increase production. Tran explained that the people who want to buy his company are never interested in the product, only the profits." (according to nextshark.com (http://nextshark.com/)).
There is not much public information on the working conditions of the Huy Fong Foods processing facility in Irwindale due to the secrecy of the company’s operations (their company website is quite simple too). Since it is located in California, we can make assumptions that California’s host of strong labor laws (California is the #1 U.S state for working conditions in 2020, according to Oxfam America) are being promptly followed at Huy Fong Foods (given Huy Fong Foods is a law-abiding company, which depends on if you’re an optimist or pessimist on whether corporations tend to be law-abiding). Huy Fong Foods could have very much moved to another state with less stringent labor standards, at least to process their chillis, but throughout its history, it has stuck to processing plants in California. However, allegedly, according to both NBC Los Angeles and mynewsla.com, workers were "not paid for all hours worked", "Meal breaks were also late, short and sometimes missed", and workers were "required to work in sweltering conditions without air conditioning". These were in direct negligence of the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 and thus a former employee sued Huy Fong Foods in November 2020 (it still seems to be in the courts as of March 2021). This serves to represent that even with California’s strong labor laws, it does not guarantee Huy Fong Foods a paragon of excellent working conditions. Huy Fong Foods’s representatives did not comment on the ongoing lawsuit, so if they had a strong argument that the former employee was lying, I would assume they would’ve at least defended themselves.
Other than this, there were no publically reported labor conditions issues, but there could be many others ‘under the table’, or at the same time, all the current ones could be overblown and already taken care of. The secrecy of Huy Fong Foods’s operations may make the sauce more ‘hyped up’, but I believe there can still be room for adequate transparency on labor conditions (just like they tout their sustainability production process in the few interviews they have given)
Image Source (Screenshotted): https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/14552677466/