Marco Werman: We recently told you about the successes of hot sauce. Huy Fong Foods' Sriracha Hot Sauce. You know, the bottle with the green cap and the rooster on the label? Well, Sriracha is back in the headlines. We're talking fumes of the fresh jalapenos processed at the Sriracha factory in Irwindale, California. Apparently, people living in the area say the fumes are burning their eyes and throats. Now, if you think living next door to a pepper factory is bad, try working in one. Horticulturist Stephanie Walker does. She works with the hottest peppers in the world at the Chili Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Stephanie, love them in food, but seriously, chili peppers are not to be messed with. I mean they're used in pepper spray, so just how dangerous are chilis?
Stephanie Walker: The capsaicinoid chemicals that are found in chili peppers are very irritating to human skin, mucous membranes, but people have really learned to love them and eat them and...yeah, I guess as long as you take it in the proper does, it's a good thing.
Werman: Can you imagine what it's like for the neighbors of the Sriracha plant?
Walker: Yes, actually, years ago I worked at the largest green chili processing plant in the world. We did a product that was peeled jalapenos. We would wear respirators, masks on our faces, gloves, but it was still a very difficult environment to work in inside the plant, and certainly I can see if the fumes would get out of the plant, certainly could be irritating to neighbors.
Werman: Now, I recently learned that Huy Fong uses fresh red jalapenos in its recipe, as opposed to say Tabasco, which uses only dried chili peppers. What difference does that make when you know, they're cooking up a sauce in the factory?
Walker: Oh, well certainly the different peppers will have different heat levels. I mean people think of jalapenos as being hot and they are, but really, a hot jalapeno is only about 20,000 Scoville heat units with some range. We here at the Chili Pepper Institute work with Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper, which has over two million Scoville heat units.
Werman: All right, so Trinidad Scorpion pepper, I've never even seen that. What is that, some crazy pepper?
Walker: Yeah, yeah, well it's a variety of pepper than in replicated trials here at New Mexico State University, it is the one that's been identified by this institution so far as being the hottest ever.
Werman: So what do you do at the institute? Do you ever have close calls with these things?
Walker: Oh, certainly, you know, when we do our yield trials, we do our analysis, we have to take these very hot peppers, dry them, grind them before we actually do the chemical analysis on them. So certainly students, workers, technicians will occasionally get too big a does of the capsaicin and have a coughing fit, watery eyes. Of course, we always are very careful to properly wash our hands after handling them, and preferably we use gloves, of course.
Werman: Yeah, you know, when I cook peppers I prep them with dish washing gloves. I mean have you ever accidentally gotten a really hot pepper on the Scoville scale in your eye?
Walker: I don't think anyone that works really closely with the peppers has completely avoided that, so yes, eventually you will at least get some of the volatile compound in your eye.
Werman: Do you ever have to de-pepper yourself afterward?
Walker: Yes, yes, absolutely. A good soapy shower pretty much helps, although sometimes the chemical sensation will linger.
Werman: So I'm just curious, for the people in Irwindale, CA, if things get really hot there, I mean is there anything the Sriracha factory can do to control the fumes and still kind of put out their product as they know it?
Walker: Sure, absolutely, I mean first of all, just by increasing the filtration to keep the volatile compounds from drifting away from the factory, so increasing the filtration and making sure that the factor is pretty closed up, it's still gonna be tough on the factor workers certainly, but you can take these steps to help protect the neighborhood.
Werman: Horticulturist Stephanie Walker with the Chili Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, New Mexico, thanks a lot.
Walker: Thank you.