Edward Handcock is a patron of Mrs. Gooch's natural food emporium in Redondo Beach, Calif., - a true believer in the restorative powers of fish oil - and a foot soldier in the "vitamin wars" of the 1990s.

The 82-year-old Torrance, Calif., resident is a willing recruit in the army of consumers who have gone to bat for the $4 billion-a-year dietary supplement industry in its battle with the federal government over regulation of everything from beta carotene to shark cartilage."We have to fight for our freedom," declared Handcock, who swears by the daily regimen he began after a heart attack 42 years ago: fish oils to keep his arteries unclogged, borage oil to aid his digestion and a smorgasbord of vitamins A, B, D, E and F, as well as calcium and magnesium, to keep him fit and vigorous.

The retired engineer is convinced that federal regulators are waging an assault on his well-being. He has sent numerous letters to members of Congress, urging them to protect his right to buy any product he likes. Legions of Americans like him have made the supplement uprising a movement that some compare to gun control or abortion in its emotional intensity.

In the last year, Capitol Hill has been flooded by correspondence urging Congress to keep the government's hands off vitamins and related health products.

Their target is the Food and Drug Administration, which is implementing a law restricting health claims for supplements.

The FDA and its congressional allies say they do not intend to restrict access to supplements that are safe and that do not make false or misleading assertions about health benefits. For instance, a supplement cannot be touted as curing cancer or AIDS, or halting the aging process, unless there is substantial scientific evidence.

But the FDA said last year it was considering regulating some amino acids and herbs as drugs or as food additives, which would invoke tougher safety standards.

Vitamin makers and merchants have told millions of customers that the FDA wants to either require a doctor's prescription to obtain their products, drive up prices, or pull them off the shelves altogether. It is a potent appeal, because some consumers view access to supplements as nothing less than a matter of life and death.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., received 35,000 letters on supplements last year - nearly as many as on the economy and twice as many as on education. Boxer is one of 65 senators co-sponsoring an industry-backed measure introduced by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, that would place the burden of proof on the FDA to show a product is unsafe, rather than making the manufacturer prove its safety.

Some 100 million Americans take supplements to bolster diets, enhance well-being or combat illness.

The FDA says that, while most of the ingredients in supplements "present few safety concerns," there is evidence that a small number can cause liver and kidney damage, seizures, and even death. Manufacturers deny that their products pose such dangers.