A tiny Asian beetle hiding inside a burlap bag slipped into the United States this fall and traveled inconspicuously to a spice warehouse in Moonachie, N.J. Then, on Oct. 27, a government inspector found it.

Now, a federal agency, Congress, two Baltimore spice companies and a dozen other businesses in five states have mobilized in a massive, expensive scramble to search out and destroy the dreaded khapra beetle before it multiplies.

The beetle, one-eighth inch in length, is the world's most destructive pest for stored grain and food products, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It ruined millions of dollars of American grain in the 1950s and 1960s, and was eliminated only after a $15 million, decade-long campaign.

Almost 15 years later, the khapra beetle is back. First sighted on Oct. 27 at the Mincing Spice Co. in New Jersey, it has since turned up in 13 other sites, including four in Baltimore. And the search for what one official calls "the fearsome invader" goes on.

U. S. Department of Agriculture inspectors across the country expect to spend the next month tracking down every item that had contact with the contaminated spice bags. Then they will inspect all concerns that handle spices and used bagging, a USDA official said. So far, he stressed, no beetles have been found in grain supplies.

"The fear is not that we will have a major infestation in the northeast," said USDA's Don Woodham, the nationwide coordinator of the khapra beetle project. "The fear is that with the normal movement of cargo, it will find its way into the grain industry."

The beetles came closest to grain in the port of Baltimore, one of the nation's main grain exporting points and the site of three large grain elevators. Agriculture inspectors found the beetles in a little-used warehouse on a pier operated by the Chessie System, but not in grain supplies.

Baltimore inspectors also found the pests in three other locations -- the historic McCormick Co. building, which emits scents of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon that waft over the popular Inner Harbor; Baltimore Spice Co. in Garrison; and Premium Bag Co. in East Baltimore -- making that city the leader so far in the number of khapra beetle sightings.

The discovery of the beetles generated tremendous publicity in the old port city, conjuring up images of "The Beetle That Ate Baltimore," and causing public relations traumas for the spice companies.

"We didn't find it funny at all," said Jack Felton, spokesman for McCormack. "We never had anything like this before.The rumor got out that the place would be closed for two weeks, that the place was infested." In fact, beetles were found only on the first floor and on the roof, not in areas where they could contaminate spices, Felton added.

"This company was founded in 1889 and there's never been any question of the integrity of our product," he said.

The dark brown, oval-shaped beetles move in piggyback-style with whatever material they infest. (They have wings, but can't fly.) From the Mincing Spice warehouse in New Jersey, they got to Baltimore Spice, which buys from Mincing. From there, they got to Premium Bag Co., which buys used burlap bags from Baltimore Spice. And one Agriculture Department official speculated that Chessie buys burlap from Premium. As it turns out, burlap bags are one of the khapra beetle's main hosts.

Once inspectors found the beetles, the search and destroy mission ran into a bureaucratic roadblock: there was no money left in the Agriculture Department budget to fumigate the contaminated plants. Congress had not appropriated money for khapra beetle fumigation since the mid-'60s, when the pest was eliminated in the United States, and virtually all of the $2.5 million in contingency funds were exhausted in a battle against the Mediterranean fruit fly on the West Coast earlier this year.

Maryland's two senators, Paul Sarbanes and Charles McC. Mathias, rallied to the cause by cosponsoring a $2 million khapra beetle fumigation amendment to the much-debated continuation resolution that tied up the 96th Congress for days. But that measure, along with more than 100 other amendments, was killed in the final compromise.

"There was a lot written about how Congress was decorating its Christmas tree with all these amendments, but a lot of them were meritorious," said Sarbanes, obviously irritated that the khapra beetle amendment was chopped with the same ax as other, less pressing ones. "The case for this amendment was quite strong," he said.

Last weekend, the two spice companies fumigated their premises at their own expense with the deadly compound, methyl bromide, under the watchful supervision of USDA inspectors. Felton estimated McCormick spent $20,000 on the fumigation, while Baltimore Spice Co. treasurer Glen Jackson estimated the cost to his company at $50,000.

Jackson indicated Baltimore Spice will try to get its money back, possibly through a lawsuit, but McCormick's Felton appeared ready to put the beetle incident behind him. "We're a major Fortune 500 company, so $20,000 is really nothing in terms of our total operations," Felton said. "We're glad we could help out. We don't want the bugs getting near the grain. Of course, $20,000 isn't something we want to throw away. But we're glad to have the plant clean and operating."

The khapra beetle, or trogoderma granarium, is a terror to the grain industry because of the speed with which it can destroy grain and reproduce itself.

"A 40-pound grain sack can be reduced to 10 pounds in three months, and that's the weight of the beetles themselves," said Susan Hess of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health inspection Service. "It's just obnoxious. It gathers in cracks and crevices. In the 1960s, it was so thick in the crevices you couldn't see anything but beetles. It was so obnoxious."

"Complete grain silos were contaminated," Woodham said. "You looked in the storage bin and you couldn't see the grain for the beetles. They were 2 to 3 feet thick."

Inspectors say they are less worried about the present khapra beetle invasion than they were in the 1950s and 1960s because it has been found so far only in very small numbers and only in the north, far from the dry, warm climate where it flourishes. The last invasion was in the southwest.

However, officials cautioned, the beetle has an extraordinary capacity to survive for years in the ears of burlap bags, in cracks and crevices of buildings, in hides and skins, in soiled linens and, according to a USDA publication, even in priceless oil paintings.

So far, the beetles have been found in bag and burlap companies, in a Kalamazoo, Mich., metal fabrication company that buys materials in burlap bags, in a glove manufacturing plant in Gloversville, N.Y., in a Pier 1 Imports warehouse in Glassboro, N.J., as well as in the Baltimore and Moonachie sites. All the sites have ties to the spice and burlap industries except the Gloversville plant, which the beetles apparently reached via some African hides and skins.

"An awful lot has been made of it," said a beleguered Prall, whose normal staff of 15 inspectors is down by three. "We see khapra beetle frequently and catch it before it gets in the country. Noboby ever asks me how many snails and beetles and other foreign pests we keep out. The few beetles get in and everybody goes crazy."