The Port of Houston has raised the ante in the contest by many American ports to attract fruit and vegetable traffic from Latin America.

Port commissioners last week approved plans to build a $14 million, 236,260-square-foot cold storage warehouse in partnership with a local start- up company.The company, International Cargo Network, will lease 12 acres of land in the Jacintoport area at a site adjacent to Omniport, Houston's automated breakbulk loading facility.

The company's distribution network includes a program to move cargo with railcars and trucks. Using the warehouse as a base, International Cargo plans to become a principal dispatcher and freight broker for imported and exported products, owning a fleet of refrigerated trucks.

Houston port officials and the new cold storage company have specifically targeted the Chilean fruit trade, citing their goal of challenging Philadelphia's dominance there. But an official of the tri-state body that markets the Port of Philadelphia reacted with confidence when told about Houston's latest effort.

''We're expanding our capacity by 150,000 square feet," said Ray Heinzelmann, director of world trade at the Delaware River Port Authority. ''We're trying to keep up with the capacity for fruit imports. The volume has been increasing every year. Every port has taken a look at the fruit and it's still coming to Philadelphia."

Neal J. Ganzel, director of marketing and sales at the Port of Jacksonville, Fla., praised what he termed Houston's "innovative approach" to specialty cargoes, but said, "I don't believe Houston's project is a threat. The prime market remains the Northeast United States." Nevertheless, he said, "I see them establishing themselves somewhere with this."

Noting the public-private partnership involved in Houston's plan, he said, "That strategy is the paradigm of port development in the 1990s."

Houston officials believe the combination of the two facilities - cold storage and Omniport - will lower local food costs, lure new food- processing companies to the region and attract more fruit traffic from places like Chile.

In packaging the project, the port received assistance from the Greater Houston Partnership, which arranged a seven-year, 100 percent tax abatement on capital improvements by International Cargo. It also coordinated a rate reduction for the new company from Houston Lighting & Power Co.

The new cold storage facility is expected to open in seven months, just in time to take advantage of the Chilean produce season, which begins in mid-December. International Cargo Network also has an option to lease eight more acres at the site. The facility will be able to handle about 100,000 tons of cargo a year, storing everything from grapes to ice cream.

''It's going to be the most advanced facility on the water," predicted Don Holloway, chief executive officer of International Cargo Network.

''The ICN operation will complement the Omniport facility and further develop Houston as a load center for agricultural commodities," said Jim Pugh, executive director for the Port of Houston Authority. Houston's Omniport is the only U.S. port facility to make use of a patented cargo-handling device, called a Spiralveyor, for loading bagged cargo onto ships.

But Houston still may lack a key ingredient available in Philadelphia, according to Mr. Ganzel in Jacksonville. He said a high-volume marketplace serves as the biggest magnet for Latin produce, and Philadelphia has been able to provide a gateway to the nation's largest population of consumers.

Houston officials still can expect to carve off some of that traffic. Much of the fruit consumed in Houston itself now comes through Philadelphia so they hope to divert those shipments directly to Texas.

As a gateway to the Southwest, Houston probably will be competing with truck traffic from Mexico.