California's low-profile pistachios take on Iran

If an enterprising group of Californians has its way, it won't be long before most Americans are familiar with the ways of the pistachio nut. But, for now, details about the pistachio, such as the differences between the blond and red varieties, are not exactly dominating dinner table conversation across the United States.

In fact, the California Pistachio Associaion (CPA) says that since only 5 percent of the nation's population eats the 22 million pounds of pistachio kernels consumed annually in this country, the average American often doesn't even know what one looks like.

Those familiar with the nut often think the only difference between the kinds is that red pastachios leave behind traces of powdery dye while the others do not. But the CPA explains that red pistachios come from Iran, the blond nuts from the US.

This domestic nut is the product of a fledgling, California-based industry that fears its present toehold in the American pistachio market may be threatened by Iran, the world's No. 1 pistachio producer.

Because of last year's trade embargo of Iranian products, the domestic market was left wide open for American growers -- who, in only their second year of production, were able to produce 27.2 million pounds of nuts, 5 million pounds more than Americans ate.

Those figures make clear why domestic growers would like to keep the customers who used to buy Iranian pistachios, in addition to developing new markets -- particularly since they predict that by 1984 their crops should yield some 40 million pounds (of a worldwide crop of some 250 million pounds).

But with the hostage crisis resolved and the trade embargo lifted, growers say they fear that Iranian pistachios, which the CPA claims are indirectly subsidized by the Iranian government, will crowd domestic nuts off the market.

So far this year, no Iranian pistachios have been imported, according to the US Department of Agriculture. But as trade relations normalize, and as Iranian growers recover from a stretch of bad weather, American growers say they expect red pistachios to appear in gift packs and candy shops once again.

According to the CPA, Iranian nuts are dyed red to cover blemishes not found in domestic nuts, which are harvested with sophisticated equipment not used in Iran.

Some government trade and agricultural experts say that domestic growers are overreacting. They say the boon afforded by last year's embargo has created momentum behind sales of the home-grown, finer-quality pistachios.

But the CPA, whose members farm some 31,000 acres of pistachios in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley, is not so easily convinced.

And its members have found an ally in US Rep. William M. Thomas, a California Republican who introduced two bills in the House of Representatives: one to raise the tariff on Iranian pistachios from approximately half-a-cent per pound to 100 percent of their estimated $3-per-pound value; and another to require importers of Iranian nuts to clearly label the pistachios as products of Iran.

Like many other bills, the two proposals have been eclipsed for the time being by President Reagan's economic package. Critics say the bills would mean potentially ticklish tinkering with international agreements on tariff rates, and would impose a financial hardship on American nut distributors, who would have to pay the cost of labeling Iranian pistachios.

Still, say some observers, even though tariff protections go against the free market principles espoused by Reaganites, the two bills may eventually fare well -- partially because of the newness of the American industry and partially because of the anti-Iranian sentiment aroused by the drawn-out hostage crisis.

Domestic growers, however, are not leaving their pistachios solely in the politicians' hands. The CPA has hired a Los Angeles public relations firm, which is expected to begin a pistachio advertising blitz this Augu st.

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