Rep. Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif., said a surge in produce imports intensifies concerns that foreign fruit and vegetables are arriving on U.S. dinner tables with a pesticide residue.

Rep. Panetta said he's also concerned that burgeoning imports may hurt domestic producers, who asked the California Democrat for protective trade legislation at a hearing Tuesday.Rep. Panetta chairs the House Agriculture subcommittee on domestic marketing, consumer relations and nutrition.

Rep. Panetta released a General Accounting Office study showing fruit imports more than tripled, $482 million to $1.6 billion, while vegetable imports more than doubled, from $783 million to $1.6 billion, between 1980 and 1986.

Rep. Panetta said those increases heighten concerns about consumer safety

because the Food and Drug Administration's enforcement efforts are already weak.

He cited a GAO study that found the FDA tests less than 1 percent of all food shipments and uses laboratory methods that can detect only half the pesticides available on world markets.

We need to enforce pesticide regulations on imports, because right now they have an open door to anything they want to use and there is a lot of abuse going on, said David Gill, president of NorCal-Crosetti Foods Inc. of Watsonville, Calif.

Ronald Bown, executive director of the Chilean Exporters Association, testified that the Chilean fruit and vegetable export industry is in conscientious compliance with (pesticide) regulations in force in all countries.

Each exporter maintains strict control over the use and management of pesticides by each of his producers, Mr. Bown said.

And Antonio Berentsen - of Covemex SA, of Celaya, Mexico, a broccoli and cauliflower exporter - said Mexican growers use the same pesticides and herbicides as their U.S. counterparts, and apply them in the same manner.

But witnesses representing U.S. growers testified that the wave of imports could end up squeezing them out of business and called for trade protection legislation.

Jeffrey Garguilo, president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association testified: If nothing changes, we see more domestic production lost to foreign production. This will result in lost jobs, lost agricultural land, and injury to the economy of rural America.

The GAO study found that the import shares for major fresh and frozen fruits rose from about 26 percent in 1980 to about 33 percent in 1986, and for major fresh vegetables, from about 5 percent to about 7 percent.

The study said consumers benefited from the increase in greater supplies and variety, and in some instances, lower prices.

Some producers and domestic processors have been hurt, while distributors and some processors benefited.