IF YOU THOUGHT the poisoned pet food situation was scary, try this one on for size. Since there are too few Food and Drug Administration inspectors, billions of dollars worth of foreign ingredients get a free pass — with virtually no inspection whatsoever.

According to an Associated Press analysis of federal trade and food data, a rising tide of imports are coming from countries with spotty records and everything from salad dressing to ice cream enter this country without a look from overwhelmed inspectors.

In fact, FDA inspectors at ports and border checkpoints often find shipments that are filthy or contaminated, but they rarely bother to inspect because ingredients arent a priority. Oils, spices, flours and gums, for example, havent been blamed for killing humans, so for now they generally get by. So who is doing the safety checks? It appears no one.

Some of these products are obscure, but play a vital role in our daily diets. For instance, some of these products keep soft drinks fizzy, crackers crispy and prevent sauces from gooing up. Gum arabic is extracted from acacia trees and helps gives light whipped cream its texture. It could be the smallest ingredient that gets contaminated and triggers a disaster.

The volume is becoming immense, increasing the chances for trouble. In 2001, the United States imported $4.4 billion worth of ingredients processed from plants or animals. Last year, the total leaped to $7.6 billion. There are many reasons for the

increase in imports. U.S. food makers looking for bargains have doubled their business with low-cost countries such as Mexico, China and India. Changing consumer tastes plays a factor, too.

Heres another form of national security danger. The pet food poisoning also should be a wake-up call that our human food supply can go down the same road. In the case of pet food, it was only one product — an industrial chemical that makes plastics — that led to the deaths of 16 cats and dogs and sickened thousands more. It illustrates the vulnerability of food products coming into this country.

However, thanks to the work done by AP, unlike in the pet food situation, we have prior knowledge that inspections are lax. Now something can be done about it. Waiting for people to become ill or die before setting priorities is completely unacceptable and needs to be eliminated immediately.

Since imports into this country are rising, the number of inspectors must increase — the FDA obviously needs help. Inspection priorities must change; if products come to our shelves a little later than normal as a result, its worth the price we could pay if we consume contaminated products.

We have an obligation to inspect whatever comes into this country, especially products that we digest. Instead of letting the problem continue — and get worse — we need to get serious about adding more inspectors and being more thorough. Lets not wait for a catastrophe to act.