Most Americans only worried about becoming sick from eating contaminated food when they traveled to distant lands. After all, it was almost indisputable that the U.S. food supply was the safest in the world. But a chain of recent events has raised doubts in the minds of many.

These days, it seems that all food is suspect. Ground meat may be contaminated with dangerous new strains of Escherichia coli and poultry is rife with another recently publicized bacterium called campylobacter. That faithful staple, the egg, is a carrier of salmonella; the vegetable bin and fruit bowl may harbor protozoans with names like toxoplasma and cryptosporidium. Outbreaks of hepatitis A have been traced to strawberries. It may seem like a good idea to post a table of food-borne pathogens on the refrigerator door.

The threat, however, is frighteningly real. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, a private nonprofit organization, estimated in 1994 that as many as 9,000 deaths and 6.5 to 33 million illnesses in the United States each year are food-related. The Department of Agriculture estimates that medical costs and productivity losses for seven specific pathogens in food range between $6.5 billion and $34.9 billion annually.

And, if the growing list of food recalls is any indication, the situation seems to be getting worse. The current message from the Food and Drug Administration: "Treat all foods as if they are potentially contaminated," says Joe Madden, strategic manager for microbiology at the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Faced with a public outcry, the Clinton Administration has attempted to take an active role in protecting food and restoring public confidence--all the while insisting that U.S. food is "the safest in the world." In January 1997, President Clinton announced a $43 million Food Safety Initiative. Specific recommendations for the plan were outlined in a 50-page report, Food Safety from Farm to Table released in May. The document was a collaboration by the government agencies with regulatory oversight on the food supply: Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The plan calls for beefing up food safety inspection and monitoring efforts, funding new research to develop methods to control and detect food-borne pathogens, and speeding response to food-borne outbreaks. It also calls for expanded education efforts aimed at consumers, food service workers, and other segments of the "food chain."

Key to Clinton's scheme is shoring up the FDA's vastly overextended inspection system for food production facilities. Although the Food Safety Initiative would add 80 new investigators, fewer than 700 investigators and lab personnel now oversee 53,000 U.S. plants and imported foods. At present, FDA-regulated plants are inspected only once every 10 years.

Instead of hiring an army of inspectors, the plan sets out as its centerpiece a concept called HACCP, for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. The idea behind this "science-based approach" is to pinpoint places in the food production process where contamination can occur and monitor them closely.

The job of finding these "critical control points" is left to industry, then codified as HACCP regulations by the regulatory agencies. FDA's seafood HACCP regulations go into effect in December 1997; the Agriculture Department is developing rules for meat and poultry. FDA will create the HACCP for fruit and vegetable juices. Rules for eggs and egg products will be a joint effort of FDA and the Agriculture Dept.

While the HACCP idea may seem to be giving industry more power to police itself, at the same time the Administration is asking Congress for more enforcement power, but over U.S. producers and the increasing amounts of imported food. On October 2, Clinton announced a bill that would give the FDA the power to ban importation of fruits and vegetables from countries whose safety precautions do not meet American standards. The goal, said Clinton, is to "make sure that no fruits and vegetables cross our borders, enter our ports, or reach our dinner tables without meeting the same strict standards as those grown here in America."

An existing law gives the Agriculture Dept. similar power over imported meat--and that is just fine with the meat industry. What is not acceptable is a Clinton attempt to replace a regulatory carrot with an enforcement stick in the system for recalling contaminated meat. Under present procedures, producers are required to notify the Agriculture Dept. of contamination; recalls are voluntary. But that will change if the The Food Safety Enforcement Enhancement Act of 1997 is passed. The bill makes recalls mandatory and imposes stiff fines for failure to comply.

The meat industry has launched a major lobbying effort against the bill and has countered by calling on the FDA to allow them to use irradiation to destroy all potentially lethal bacteria in meat. The industry argues that destroying the 1.2 million pounds of beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 that was recalled by Hudson Foods Co. in August would have been unnecessary if food irradiation was permitted. The technique is now approved for poultry, although it is in limited use; the FDA has been considering a proposal for its use in red meat since 1984.

If the industry has a valid point, it is that new approaches will almost certainly be required to assure a safe food supply in the future. Both the industry and the government are up against a determined and wily adversary: the microbes themselves. Bacteria are increasingly developing resistance to antibiotics and new more virulent strains, such as E. coli O157:H7 are emerging at an alarming rate.

The time-honored inspection methods--sight, smell, and touch--simply do not work on the new generation of food pathogens. Faster, cheaper and more sensitive diagnostic tests are being developed, both to detect pathogens during processing and to quickly identify the infectious agent and its point of origin in those who become sick. Innovative approaches, such as vaccines that immunize livestock against food pathogens, such as salmonella, are nearing the market. In widespread use, vaccines could reduce the administration of antibiotics to farm animals; a practice that has been blamed for the rise of resistant strains.

The U.S. food supply may still be the safest in the world but it will take some good science, rationally applied, before consumer's will feel honest when they answer "yes" to a child who asks, "Is it safe to eat."