Australian cherry growers and exporters have shrugged off claims by Chinese state-owned media that cherries from Down Under are "inferior" in taste and quality.
It comes as the Global Times this week reported Australia's share of cherries in the Chinese market had fallen, suggesting buyers favoured the Chilean variety more.
Imported cherry prices have dropped by as much as 20 per cent on year-ago levels, growers say, largely due to an oversupply as exporters anticipate a rebound in consumption following the effects of the pandemic.
Some growers within the industry fear the high-end product could be the next to suffer from trade tensions between the Australian and Chinese governments and join the list of seafood, red wine and beef which faced their own woes from entering China.
Tasmanian cherry grower, Andrew Griggs, who runs Lucaston Park Orchards, said Tasmanian cherries were among the best in the world and regarded for their consistent quality and taste.
In recent years, Mr Griggs - who grows, packs and markets Australian cherries for the domestic and international markets - said he had looked elsewhere to export his cherries due to fears the industry was too reliant on China.
Australia exports between 5000 and 7000 tonnes annually with China the biggest international destination for the fruit, on average taking normally about 30pc of all product exported.
"These comments are a pity because China is a big market despite us relying on them less than what we did say a few years ago," Mr Griggs, who exports between 200 and 300 tonnes of cherries annually, said.
"What growers and packers need to do now is to ensure we do the job right and give them (the Chinese) the quality that Tasmania's reputation is built on because they won't be able to fault it."
Mr Griggs said he had developed relationships with other Asian countries such as Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, which accounted for a large portion of his exports.
Australian cherries are a premium product: grower
In Victoria, Yarra Valley Cherries owner Andrew Fairley, Seville, disputed the claims by Chinese media that Australian cherries were inferior.
"The first point to make is that Australian cherries are flown into China by air - they're air freighted," Mr Fairley said.
"Those cherries are in stores and available within three days of being picked. Chilean cherries travel by boat and they take 25 days to move from the Chilean ports to the Chinese points.
"The reality is those cherries are almost four weeks old when the Chinese consumer consumes them as opposed to the Australian cherries which are only a few days old."
Mr Fairley, who harvests about 100 tonnes of cherries a year, said the claims would be another challenge for the industry to navigate following the COVID-19 restrictions last year.
"We don't export our fruit direct to China but last year our exports were well down," Mr Fairley said.
"Not even 5 per cent of our fruit went on export last year but in some years it would be up to 15pc."
Victoria's cherry growing season is nearing its end, with most growers finished or nearing the end of harvest.
The claims by the Chinese state media could be more of a problem for Tasmanian growers, however, who are starting to gear up for their harvest season.
"This is another attempt by the Chinese government to push pressure on Australia politically," Mr Fairley said.
"An attempt to try and correlate our fruit compared to the Chilean exports is not grounded in truth."
Struggling to meet demand, industry body says
Cherry Growers Australia president Tom Eastlake said logistical issues due to coronavirus had proven difficult to meet demand with overseas consumers.
"I think what's happened well-meaning people in the market have said the volume is down and Australia might not have had the quality to ship and in previous years that might have been the case," Mr Eastlake, who grows cherries in Young, NSW, said.
"But since mid-October that hasn't been the case, logistics is what's held us back."
Australian cherries are classified as an ultra-premium product on the world stage which requires them to be on the shelves of Chinese stores within 72 hours of being harvested.
"The principal thing we trade on is how fresh our food is," Mr Eastlake said.
"This year there are no passenger planes flying and that's limiting our ability to supply to an extent.
"We have spoken to our key contacts in China, both wholesalers and people in government, and both have told us they would like more fruit but getting it there is proving difficult to manage."
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