The risk of getting food poisoning from eating fish is 25 times greater than it is from eating beef and 16 times greater than it is for eating pork or poultry.

Despite this report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there is no federal program to protect the public from contaminated seafood the way there have long been mandatory federal inspection programs for meat and poultry.What's more, the prospects of getting such protection became more remote this week when the U.S. House of Representatives approved a seafood inspection bill that differs sharply from companion legislation passed by the Senate. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be enough time to iron out differences between the two measures before Congress quits work for this year.

The main difference is that the House bill would concentrate responsibility for seafood safety in the Food and Drug Administration. The Senate bill, by contrast, would make the Department of Agriculture responsible for conducting inspections, the FDA responsible for setting contamination limits, and the Department of Commerce responsible for regulating fishing grounds.

Though it's ordinarily better to concentrate authority in a single agency, the Senate's approach seems better if only because of the FDA's long record of scandal, lethargy, and ineptitude.

Among other things, the Senate-passed bill would also:

- Set standards for processing fish.

- Provide regular inspections to assure that fish and food made from it are processed under sanitary conditions.

- Determine sources of potential contamination.

- Require contamination prevention and cleanup procedures for fishing areas.

- Authorize the Secretary of Commerce to close waters considered too contaminated for safe fishing.

- Require imported seafood, which comprises 60 per cent of all seafood consumed in the United States, to comply with all standards for fish caught domestically.

The potential dangers of contaminated seafood are not unknown to consumers. Indeed, the Providence, R.I. Journal reports that such fears have hurt fish sales in the past few years even though seafood is becoming increasingly important to health-conscious Americans trying to cut down on fat in their diets.

The message should be clear: Enacting a fish inspection law, which should have been adopted long ago, would protect not only consumers but also the seafood industry. This step should be taken by Congress as soon as it gets back to work early next year.