ACCORDING TO THE CAUSTIC economics of C.Wright Mills, it is safer in this country to take 10 cents from each of a million people at the point of a corporation than it is to take $100,000 from one bank at the point of a gun.

Prime Rip, a profile of the dark side of the meat industry, certainly proves Mills was right.

Wayne Swanson, magazine writer, and George Schultz, lawyer, march us smartly around ranch, feedlot, packinghouse, supermarket and U.S. Department of Agriculture to show convincingly that, one way or another, we are victimized by "an insidious combination of corruption, fraud, collusion, and incompetence" every time we sink our teeth into a steak.

The stealing may be done at only 10 or 20 cents a pound, but because Americans are lusty carnivores-- consuming each year an average of 181 pounds of meat for every man, woman and child--the thievery adds up to $8 billion a year. And, as Mills forewarned, almost nobody goes to jail for their part in the corruption.

First, let's give the system its due. Since 1906 we have required all meat, even meat destined for dog food, to be inspected to make sure it isn't diseased, spoiled or contaminated; Swanson and Schultz acknowledge that the American food inspection system is "possibly the best in the world at what it does."

Don't be too grateful, however. Investigators have found that poison and rot still slip through, that "14 percent of dressed meat and poultry sold in supermarkets may contain illegal residues of drugs, pesticides, and other contaminants"; a spot check of meat sold to the military showed two-thirds of it was short-weighted, off-color, and too fatty. Soldiers eating ground beef sometimes get a little bonus of flies, flecks of metal, and cowhide.

So much for the good news. The bad news is that even though most of our meat is untainted, it is likely to be overrated and overpriced. "The 'USDA Inspected & Passed' seal is no guarantee that the meat won't taste like shoe leather."

Unlike inspection, meat grading--"prime" (the top grade), "choice," "good," et cetera--is not mandatory. It's a service the packers pay the USDA to perform, for marketing appeal. There are two ways to cheat: industry-wide, or carcass by carcass. Both techniques are used. The USDA in 1976, in what Swanson and Schultz call "a cruel fraud on consumers," loosened the standards and made it so easy for meat to be judged "choice" (the most popular grade at the supermarket) that the designation became virtually meaningless. About 80 percent of the meat sold today carries that stamp.

The carcass cheating is left to individual graders, who can easily pick up a few hundred bucks a week in bribes, plus free liquor and hookers, for simply slapping sides of beef with a flattering stamp. For the packers, these payoffs are a bargain. If the difference between "good" and "choice" is a penny a pound--and the difference can be as much as seven cents--a crooked grader needs to misgrade only 17 average-weight carcasses a week to pay back the packer for a $100 bride. S&S say some graders fraudulently upgrade several hundred carcasses a week. The opportunity is boundless: in some packinghouses the carcasses whiz by the grader at a rate of up to 330 an hour. He hardly has time to take aim with his stamp, much less give the meat an adequate survey for quality.

Sometimes, when a grader gets too drunk or his conscience collapses or his arm gets tired, he just turns over his stamps to the packer to use at will.

A few of these grubby little bureaucrats in bloody smocks have been caught, but usually they aren't caught until they have lined their pockets for a decade or more. They may spend a few weeks in jail; they may even be fired, but they rarely lose their federal pension. And it's almost unheard of for their supervisors--wise to what's going on, and sharing in it--to be punished at all.

If fraudulent grading is easy, the price-fixing that permeates the industry is extremely complicated. Fear not, however; Swanson and Schultz have cut through the complexities to make this style of larcency sound almost simple.

There is commonsense evidence of collusion between packers and supermarket chains. A couple of years ago the FBI, by accident, caught some of California's biggest packers in a vintage price-fixing setup. But were they guilty alone? How about the supermarkets that bought from them? "After all," Swanson and Schultz remind us, "if a supermarket's buyer kept seeing the same bids week after week, it wouldn't take a genius to figure out something fishy was going on." Yet for 10 years the supermarkets said nothing.

That price-fixing setup was primitive: the packers simply met once a week and took a vote. But investigators suspect there are other much more complicated techniques, national in scope. There are suspicions that some big supermarket chains and some big packers have ganged up to depress prices paid to cattlemen and inflate prices charged consumers, and that at the heart of their scheme is the manipulation of the old "Yellow Sheet."

Produced by a handful of reporters working out of an upstairs room in a Chicago brownstone, the "Yellow Sheet" has had a strange hold on the industry for many years. Most people in the business consider it the bible of meat pricing. But an investigator testified in 1978 before the House Committee on Small Business that "80 percent of the prices quoted each day were in effect fabricated by the 'Yellow Sheet' reporters."

If consumers have an ally, it is the cattlemen who are getting ripped off, too. Right now a thousand ranchers have joined in a lawsuit down in Dallas that just could blow the price-fixing evil into the open.

But why do we have to depend on long, costly, private lawsuits for protection? We spend billions of dollars on USDA bureaucrats. Why don't they help us? Because, Swanson and Schultz point out, the department is geared to the industry's cash register. The case histories they give would indicate that honest officials have career problems. One, who did a report highly critical of the industry's antiquated pricing system and urged that it be updated with electronics, was reprimanded, they say, and virtually driven out of office.

The old revolving door problem is nowhere more prevalent than at the USDA. Charles Jennings used to be head of the USDA's Packers and Stockyard Administration, which has the responsibility of keeping the packers honest. Whether he did his job well or not is a matter of opinion, but after completing his federal tour, Jennings moved on to become vice president for public relations at the world's largest packer, Iowa Beef Processors Inc.

Things aren't likely to improve soon. Richard Lyng used to be president of the American Meat Institute. In that role he suggested that efforts to keep powdered bone and nitrites out of meat were fanatical. Now Lyng is the No. 2 man at USDA.

One must give Prentice-Hall a three-hanky salute for risking money on a book of this sort during the current national lethargy. Prime Rip would have been received as a big gun in the Nader era. But where are the consumer advocates of yesteryear? I hope I'm wrong, but I'll bet Prime Rip arouses more nostalgia than anger.