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U.S. to step up inspections of domestic and import food

Concerned that soaring food imports and fewer inspections may mean more diseases in American kitchens, the Clinton administration is stepping up policing of fruits and vegetables overseas.

And U.S. farmers would face new sanitation guidelines as well, The Associated Press has learned, in part to forestall any complaints that the United States would hold foreign farmers to higher standards.The plan, which President Clinton was announcing Thursday, would seek up to $24 million for new Food and Drug Administration inspections around the world - and let the agency forbid crop imports from countries that don't meet certain standards.

A Mexican farm official denounced the new plan.

"It is very clear to us that behind all this are economic interests which want to prevent Mexican vegetables from entering the U.S.," said Luis Cardenas, of an agriculture group in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, a big tomato producer.

Other critics charge that Clinton is adopting the new program in an attempt to disarm those who say his push for free-trade legislation would increase the risks of tainted foods entering the country.

They argue that the U.S. food supply already is the world's safest and that Clinton's announcement was coming a month before an FDA advisory committee was set to recommend new food-safety measures.

"Clearly, being the world food police complicates the trade environment we operate in," said John Aguirre of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association. Risks from overseas produce are low enough that "this is unwarranted," he added.

But the FDA, which has been pushing for the changes since 1993, said its inspection program hasn't kept pace.