Hams. As far as the eye can see. Fifty thousand aged Italian prosciutto hams, each worth about $100. Soon they will be on their way to delicatessens and upscale supermarkets in the East and California to be carved up into paper-thin slices selling for up to $12 a pound.

For Claudio Colmignoli, 32, president of Fiorucci Foods Corp., it is the culmination of an idea that began when he was a college student in Florida. After spending eight years in Rome working for Cesare Fiorucci SpA, Italy's largest meat manufacturer, he persuaded the president (who is his father-in-law) to invest $22 million in a new processing plant south of Richmond. Now, after 10 months of curing, the initial production of Fiorucci prosciutto, made in America, is about to make its debut.

In York, Pa., a team of three technicians, recently arrived from Tokyo, controls production of chocolate-covered snacks at Stauffer-Meiji Inc. With a bow to visitors, they proudly show off the ultramodern plant inaugurated last year. The machinery, products, management by consensus, quality control circles and just-in-time manufacturing replicate those at the factories of the parent company, Meiji Seika of Japan. Even the business cards of American executives, who handle the marketing and sales, are bilingual.

Fiorucci Foods, wholly owned by its foreign parent, and Stauffer-Meiji, a $4 million joint venture involving Japan's largest confectioner and a regional bakery, D.F. Stauffer Biscuit Co., are part of a significant change in the way this country feeds itself. Like the automobile, electronic and financial services industries, the food industry is going global.

Although the United States prides itself as an exporter of food -- and indeed continues to export more agricultural products than it imports -- it has for several years run a deficit on processed foods. It imported $5.6 billion more than it exported in 1986, according to the Department of Commerce. The current vogue for gourmet food notwithstanding, few of the imports were in the champagne and caviar class. The bulk is composed of basic items like Australian hamburg, Brazilian orange juice concentrate and fish from many nations.

The processed food deficit, which declined slightly from 1985, is expected to shrink more this year because of the dollar's fall, which makes imports more expensive, and the rise of foreign food manufacturers here.

Foreign investment here now outpaces U.S. investment in food manufacturing abroad, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In 1980, for example, cumulative U.S. investments abroad totaled $8.3 billion, while foreigners spent $4.9 billion here. But by 1985, the most recent year for which figures are available, the ratio was reversed. Aggregate foreign investment in the victuals business on these shores amounted to $11.2 billion, compared with $9.3 billion U.S. companies spent abroad.

Last year alone, foreigners invested $888 million here; while most of it went to acquire U.S. food processors, the number of start-up operations is growing. These efforts range from basics like fats and oils to ethnic specialties like cheese or endive.

Sometimes, there are special reasons for processing here rather than importing: existing or threatened quotas and tariffs, trade wars and health restrictions.

Fiorucci, for example, moved to America because the Agriculture Department prohibited the importation of pork products from Italy due to evidence of swine flu there. (Ironically, after 10 years of negotiation, the ban on whole hams was lifted last April before Fiorucci's products were ready. Imported Parma ham will be available in late 1988.) A restrictive quota on most cow's milk cheese products persuaded Tholstrup Cheese Denmark a/s to open a plant in Muskegon, Mich., to make its popular Blue Saga, a blue-veined soft cheese.

However, the main reason the foreign investors are here is simple economics: the depreciation of the dollar which makes it cheaper for foreigners to buy here, cheaper labor and lower taxes, reduction of transportation costs, surpluses or stagnant markets at home causing a need for expansion, the potential of the affluent American market, the profitability of the U.S. food industry, and the ability to repatriate profits.

Of the foreigners coming here, the Japanese are moving the most rapidly to establish new plants. A few examples: Kibun Corp.'s surimi (processed fish) plants in North Carolina and Washington state, Lotte Co.'s chewing gum plant in Michigan, Nissin Foods Co.'s new pasta plant in California and Morinaga's projected tofu factory.

The advantages of the trend toward producing food here include a wider, fresher selection of products and lower prices for consumers,and more jobs for workers in depressed areas. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Commerce was so pleased with the Stauffer-Meiji marriage that it gave the venture $2 million in development bonds.

But there are also fears that the foreign ventures here may threaten domestic companies. Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Lester Thurow has observed that while U.S. food manufacturers spend most of their research and development funds on new products -- which have a high mortality rate -- foreign companies spend theirs on new processes. Ultimately, some fear, this may lead to a rerun of what happened in the automobile industry, where foreigners, through a combination of lower prices and better quality, captured about 30 percent of the market.

So far, it has not come to that -- Commerce Department experts estimate foreigners currently have about 5 percent of the U.S. food industry. But "the Japanese, ever pragmatic, always persistent, have determined that if they cannot come through the front door with their exports, then they will come in the back door and hire Americans to design American products for American consumers, with a lion's share of the profits flowing back to Japan," warned Bob Messenger, business editor of Prepared Foods magazine.

The vast American market is attractive to Europeans as well as Japanese. Many exotic vegetables, once available only as imports, are being cultivated domestically. Consider endive. Belgium produces more than 100,000 tons annually and exports about 2,500 tons to the United States. Transportation and handling raise the cost to $3.99 a pound in Washington. Louis Dailly, a Frenchman, manages to undercut that price by about 20 percent by growing the crop hydroponically outside Plattsburgh, N.Y. Backed by the Paris-based Saudi-Arabian multinational conglomerate TAG (Techniques d'Avant Garde) Group, TAG Agri Development (USA) Ltd. has been in business for five years and produces 1,500 tons of endive annually. It already has spawned several imitators around the country.

Ken Corey, assistant professor of physiology of vegetable crops at the University of Massachusetts, is conducting experiments for Luc Byvoet, an endive grower in Vron, France. Byvoet, noting that the projected demand in the United States for endive will be 15,000 to 20,000 tons annually in a decade, is preparing to invest $750,000 in a New England operation. "Export is for the short term," said Byvoet. "For the long term, one must invest in the country itself."

Producers who move here often find, however, that they must tailor their products to U.S. tastes to develop the broad market acceptance needed to justify their investments.

For instance, Besnier S.A., a major French cheese producer, opened a New York office in 1980 to import its Brie and Camembert. But fearing trade barriers, the company opened a production plant in Wisconsin a year later and this year, another in California.

After a bacteria outbreak in French Brie last year, Besnier now bills its product, "Unmistakably French, American dairy fresh." American Brie is milder than the French product. Moreover, its Brie comes in onion, pepper, bacon, garlic and herb flavors as well. "That makes the French laugh," said Executive Vice President Paul Bensabat, a Frenchman, "but the European has to adapt the product to American demand."

Eying the success of domestically produced soft-ripened cheeses, other French cheese manufacturers, plus a soft-drink and a prepared-meals company, are eager to move here, said Bensabat. Richard H. Koby, an attorney representing the Cheese Importers Association, added that the makers of Dutch Gouda and English Stilton are also exploring the U.S. market.

Brie imports have increased sixfold in six years, reaching 24 million pounds in 1985. Now imports are dropping substantially, according to Mark Robbins, president of Northfield Cheese Co. in New Jersey. Higher prices are primarily responsible, but domestic copies are also a factor. John Rusnak, marketing director of Sutton Place Gourmet, sells both side by side. His customers prefer the original to the "watered down" domestic version, he said. Yet he conceded, "Esoteric is fine on a philosophical level, but the bottom line is bucks. So whatever appeals to the mass market, manufacturers will make."

Japanese food manufacturers also have their eye on the mass market. English names are often used to give cachet to products intended for domestic consumption in Japan. Elsewhere in the world, the Japanese connection is not used "to avoid potential negative reaction," said a Stauffer-Meiji executive.

Some foods like pasta are international in nature, as popular in the Orient as in Italy. More and more the production of those foods is also becoming international. A little noodle history illustrates the globilization of the food industry:

After World War II, American wheat flour was shipped to Japan where it was made into the first instant ramen noodles by Momufuku Ando, founder and chairman of the board of Nissin Foods Corp., Japan's sixth-largest food corporation. Sales were slow at first in Japan. In the mid-1960s a U.S. company began importing them for Japanese-Americans. When Nissin discovered how popular its instant noodles had become with ethnic communities here, Ando decided to establish ramen noodle production in California. In 1976 Nissin Foods (USA) Co. Ltd. changed the product's name to Oodles of Noodles for easterners and began marketing nationwide. All the ingredients are American. Today Nissin's plants in Los Angeles County and Lancaster, Pa., have annual sales of about $80 million.

Durum wheat from the Midwest is used to make pasta in Italy. The threat of a pasta war prompted an Italian company, Ital-Grani, to form a joint venture with Prince Co., the Massachusetts macaroni maker, to mill durum wheat. Operations began three months ago at a plant in St. Louis. And Richard Thompson, an oil and gas developer, teamed up with Spigadoro-Petrini of Perugia. Rather than destroy the durum wheat fields to erect his rigs, Thompson decided to harvest it and turn it into Italian pasta here. "I'm a good Republican," said he. "I want to help Reagan end the deficit."

The American-Italian Pasta Co. will open in Kansas City, Mo., late next year. It will be the same product they make in Perugia, sold in the United States and exported to the Orient as Italian pasta. Just for fun, Thompson said he plans to export some to Italy. It will be labeled American pasta.

And Stauffer-Meiji plans to use part of its unutilized capacity in Pennsylvania to export some of its American snacks back to Japan.