CLINTON PROMOTES BILL ON FOOD IMPORT SAFETY

CLINTON PROMOTES BILL ON FOOD IMPORT SAFETY

Hoping to persuade a reluctant Congress, President Clinton is using his bully pulpit in an effort to revive a bill aimed at halting imports of fruit and vegetables from countries that lack safe handling practices.

Mr. Clinton first announced the proposal last October, but legislation introduced in the House has languished. The president joined the main Senate sponsor, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and other supporters in a Roosevelt Room event last week intended to call new attention to improving safety of imported foods.''While we have done a lot, more must be done, and we need the help of Congress to do more,'' Clinton said.

Shipments of imported foods have doubled in this country since 1991 and make up 38 percent of the fruit and 12 percent of vegetables consumed in America. At the same time, there have been high-profile instances of sickness caused by imported raspberries, lettuce and other products tainted with bacteria or viruses.

The bill would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to stop imports from countries that have unsafe handling, sanitation, storage, processing or shipping practices. The FDA could also halt imports from countries that refuse to allow those systems to be inspected.

The Agriculture Department already has this authority for imported meat and poultry. The FDA must attempt to inspect food as it arrives in U.S. ports and only checks about 2 percent. ''The health of American families should not be put at risk by fruits and vegetables from countries that are known to have inadequate food safety programs,'' said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., the main House sponsor.

Little hard evidence is available to support claims that imported foods are more hazardous than those produced domestically. But for 57-year-old Gloria Doyle of Chevy Chase, Md., the imported raspberries contaminated with cyclospora that sickened her for three months are evidence enough.

''Nine months ago, I had never heard of it,'' said Ms. Doyle, who attended the ceremony, referring to the microbe. ''No American should have to go through a life-threatening experience because of contaminated food.''

Food-safety advocates welcomed Clinton's support of the measure, which they said could help them gain enough momentum to attract some Republican support in Congress.

The food industry, however, said imported food is already held to high U.S. standards and that broad new authority may not be necessary.

''The most appropriate means of addressing the safety of imported fruits and vegetables is to provide FDA with more inspection and enforcement resources, not an open-ended regulatory bill,'' said John Aguirre, vice president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Mr. Clinton has also asked for $25 million to hire some 250 more FDA inspectors in the fiscal 1999 budget.