SYDNEY — The Australian food industry has attacked a decision, taken jointly by the governments of both Australia and New Zealand, to require consumer warnings on all package labels for food containing genetically altered material.

At present, a warning is required if the product is significantly different in some way, perhaps by taste or smell, from a similar product that is produced by conventional means. But the new decision, announced in mid-December — after a joint meeting of health ministers from all the Australian states, the Australian federal government and the New Zealand government — extends the warning requirement to food that is "substantially equivalent" to existing products.

A statement issued after the meeting states that, "if the manufacturer knows the product to be free of genetically modified material, there will be no requirement to label the product. However, it may be labeled as free of genetically modified material."

The statement says the health ministers have also asked the Australian and New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) to develop a definition of the term "genetically modified food," recognizing that there are many food ingredients, such as sugars and oils, which can be made from genetically altered plants but are not themselves genetically modified.

The decision is important for both neighboring countries, which have agreed to coordinate policy, legislation and enforcement in this area, since both are major food exporters.

A spokeswomen for the Australian Food Council (AFC), which represents producers, said the labeling decision went further than any other major country's. Also, she said, the AFC would be interested in how the ANZFA intended to define genetically modified material, or how it intended to enforce the labeling regulations.

It's possible that the producer would not be aware of genetic modifications in the material, AFC said. There might, say, be spraying with genetically modified material on land adjacent to the land used by another food producer, who was unaware of the spraying.

The AFC also considered the move counterproductive, since a comprehensive labeling regime that gave the consumers "meaningful information" was already in place.

"Mandatory labeling of all products of new gene technologies would leave Australia with the most restrictive, albeit unenforceable, labeling regime in the world and open to challenge under the World Trade Organization [WTO]," the AFC said.

A spokeswoman for the Australia and New Zealand Food Standards Council, however, said the countries would be subject to a WTO challenge without the new rules. She said the new rules are in line with those in Europe and tighter than the labeling rules in the U.S. *