CLOVIS, Calif. — Just back from the first American Pistachio Growers’ promotional tour of China, members of the delegation were still using terms such as “amazing” and “tremendous opportunity.”

It was not just a good trip, said Rich Matoian, the Fresno-based group’s executive director.

“It was an excellent trip,” he said. “I would say it was highly successful by every measure.”

China’s growing importance to the U.S. pistachio industry is evidenced by the numbers.

China looms large for U.S. pistachio industry“In the last five years, there has been a nearly 700% increase in our pistachio shipments to China,” said Jim Zion, chairman of APG’s board of directors and managing partner of Meridian Nut Growers LLC, Clovis. “In fact, one of every five pistachios shipped from the U.S. is bound for China.”

The future for U.S. pistachios in China could be even brighter.

“We’ve only tapped a small portion of that marketplace, we think,” Zion said.

The delegation included three other grower-shippers: Zachary Sheely, Lemoore; Steven Moore, Fresno; and, Jeremy Blackwell, Visalia; and Judy Hirigoyen, APG’s director of global marketing and Noelle Freeman, Miss California 2011. News conferences and nutrition seminars were held in Beijing and Shanghai in addition to “The Power of Pistachios” themed events at retailers in both cities.

Shoppers are thirsting for nutritional and processing information among China’s growing middle class, Zion said.

“Food safety in China is a huge issue right now,” he said. “The consumers are extremely worried about their locally produced food and want to buy foreign goods.”

Consumer education is something of a new phenomenon in China, Zion said. Consumers, retailers and the media peppered the delegation with questions about where the product is grown, how it’s grown, how to know that it is healthful and that it was handled in a safe manner, he said.

“We showed videos of pistachio harvests and processing,” Matoian said. “We were amazed at the reaction when the Chinese saw that the pistachios are dropped into catch frames — that the nuts never touch the ground.”

The growing Chinese middle class has forced changes for the retail industry.China looms large for U.S. pistachio industry

“It’s moved from a traditional wet market, where people shop in outdoor markets, to hypermarkets that would rival anything you’d find in the U.S.,” Zion said.

And retailers are finding pistachios are good for the bottom line.

“They find pistachios are a driver into the store for other items,” Zion said. “Shoppers go in to buy pistachios and end up buying other items.”

The popularity of pistachios in China is not limited to the snack category.

“There seems to be tremendous interest in expanding the baking sector in China, especially in the French style,” Zion said. “We see tremendous opportunity on the ingredient usage.”

Whether another promotional trip to China is in the future for American Pistachio Growers will be up to the board of directors, Matoian said.

“Based on how this trip went, I think it is going to be an easy decision,” he said.

In the interim, APG has retained a Chinese public relations firm to continue to spread the word on the nut’s nutrition, food safety and helping Chinese shoppers differentiate between U.S. pistachios and nuts from other countries, Matoian said.

With the economic chaos in Europe, China has become an even more important export market for the domestic pistachio industry, Zion said, and the promotion tour built a solid foundation.

“What we’ve done is sort of set the table for growers and marketers to move forward to move pistachios in China,” he said.