Unlike programs for meat and poultry, there is no mandatory inspection of fish, so as Americans eat more fish, they should be aware of how to buy and prepare it safely.

Currently, the Commerce Department conducts voluntary fish inspections, but less than 12 percent of U.S. seafood is inspected, according to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The Food and Drug Administration inspects the nation's 4,000 seafood plants once every four years and also administers a voluntary shellfish sanitation program.

Inspection is "random, it's not enforced," said Jodie Silverman of the Washington-based public interest group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy.

In September, the Senate passed legislation that would charge the Agriculture Department with inspecting fish. The Bush administration, however, threatened a veto if the Senate legislation was approved by the House. In the final days of Congress, the House passed a substantially different bill, which effectively killed the measure since there was no time for reconciliation. The action ended a lengthy turf battle over which federal agency should administer fish inspection. In addition to naturally occurring bacteria or parasites, water can be polluted by industrial and sewage discharge or by blooms of poisonous algae known as red or brown tides. Consumers should check for environmental warnings before going fishing, eat a variety of fish species, and avoid the viscera, skin and fatty sections.

Americans are eating more fish each year because of health concerns and increased availability, but they still lag behind many countries, says Roddy Moscoso, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Last year, Americans ate an average of 40.8 pounds of whole fish, or 15.9 pounds of edible fish, compared with 7.9 pounds of edible fish in 1943. But the average over the last four years was 152.8 pounds of whole fish in Japan, 46.3 pounds in Denmark and 56.9 pounds in France. By comparison, Americans are expected to eat 64 pounds of beef apiece in 1990, down from nearly 78 pounds in the early 1980s, according to the National Cattlemen's Association.

Fish generally are low in calories and are a good source of protein. They contain a range of vitamins and minerals, and their omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to a lowered risk of heart disease. On the low end of fat content is Atlantic cod, which has 82 calories in a 3.5-ounce portion, about six of them from fat, according to cookbook author Anne M. Fletcher. At the other end is Pacific herring, which contains 195 calories in 3.5 ounces, 125 of them from fat, and black or red caviar, with 252 calories in 3.5 ounces, 161 of them from fat, she says.

The tastes of different kinds of fish vary as much, says cookbook author and chef instructor Shirley King of New York City. "Fish taste best when simply prepared -- broiled, grilled, roasted or baked in the oven, poached or steamed," according to King. Cooking fish to an internal temperature of 140 degrees will destroy parasites, she says. "When you eat any type of meat, poultry, fish or shellfish that's not thoroughly cooked, there's always the possibility of contracting certain types of food poisoning."

Most fish experts agree that the greatest immediate risk of food poisoning in eating seafood lies in raw shellfish. The FDA has determined that the risk from raw oysters, clams and mussels from water considered clean is too small to warrant a warning. However, it recommends that susceptible people, such as those with cancer, liver disease or chronic gastrointestinal illnesses, avoid them.