FOR every kilogram of real Tasmanian cherries on the shelf in China, there are an additional 5kg labelled as Tasmanian but which come from somewhere else.
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That’s according to Andrew Rhodes of Sense-T, a tech firm who, amid a nationwide uproar over imported Chinese berries contaminated with Hepatitis A, has been quietly been plugging away on paddock-to-plate tracking technology.

By Friday, 14 cases of hepatitis A had been linked to consumption of Nanna’s brand frozen mixed berries, supplied from a single factory in China.

Shares in parent company Patties Foods have dropped 12 per cent. Schoolchildren are being kept under observation for jaundice. The Department of Health has set up a National Incident Room.

Politicians from across the spectrum have clambered aboard; Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and Greens’ federal MP Adam Bandt are both pushing for a broad review of food safety and labelling laws.

Sense-T is keen not to let the berry crisis go to waste. Rhodes says the incident underscores the need to deliver what Sense-T is working on: real-time data that tells consumers what they are eating. Its sensors can be used right through the food chain, from the soil on a farm to a packet in a supermarket, helping anyone with a scanner to check a product’s provenance.

“Sense-T is about promoting Tasmanian product and productivity rather than food safety, but the technology could be used to place sensors all the way through the supply chain,” says Rhodes.

Sense-T has been trialling its sensors across 21 Tasmanian farms in partnership with the Tasmanian and Federal governments, the University of Tasmania and the CSIRO.

Tasmanian cherry grower Tim Reid says there has long been concern among Australian farmers about deceptive labelling and packaging.

“Consumers don’t really understand where the product comes from. We could certainly do with a review of the testing and monitoring of imported food products,” says Reid, whose family has been producing fruit since 1856 and exports to more than 20 countries.

Reid, who has Sense-T sensors in one of his orchards, says the Hepatitis A berry scandal highlights the value Asian consumers see in clean, green Australian agricultural produce.

“Australia has a very strong reputation for food safety in Asia. Safe, quality food is where Australia has an opportunity,” he says. He agrees with Rhodes that produce labelled as Tasmania in foreign markets sometimes comes from elsewhere. He says he’s asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to help him stamp-out false advertising.

“We have a number of reports back from the market of packaging purporting to be from our company using variations of our registered logo. It is clearly deceptive,” he says.

Sense-T acting director Amanda Castray says aside from tracking provenance, her company’s technology can also boost productivity on farms by providing constant data to the farmer. A vineyard owner can get real-time information on soil moisture and temperature or a dairy farmer can get an early indication of pasture growth.

The next step is developing the technology to allow consumers to scan product barcodes with an app that will give them data on quality and environmental practices. This week’s drama could make it a very popular app.

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