Chicago -- Once each year for past, 37 years the giants of the American food industry have taken part in a public relation person's dream, the newspaper food editors conference. It is an opportunity for the industry to preach its message to an audience of reporters from newspapers across the country, without fear that those with a contradictory message will march through the door to challenge them.

Every fall for five nights and six days the newspaper advertising sales association sponsors the conference to which well over 100 newspapers send their food writers. The hosts for the sessions have names like General Foods, Hershey, Grocery Manufacturers of America, ITT Continental Baking Co., Coca-Cola, Kellogg and Ralston Purina.

About 40 companies and trade associations foot the bill for the individual sessions and a majority of them took full advantage of the opportunity at last week's conference to tell their stories, which included: a denunciation of Dietary Goals for the United States; praise for the nutritious quality of candy; critcism of the Food and Drug Administration for its attempt to ban saccharin; cries of poverty over the industry's level of profits.

But some companies were present simply to offer food writers a meal and a cooking demonstration. In the past few years some hosts even have offered both sides of a controversial issue. This year only one did. Judging by the antagonistic questioning faced by the more obviously biased speakers, the value of the conference as one giant propaganda machine may be a thing of the past.

It wasn't always that way.

Fifteen years ago when this reporter attended her first conference no one openly questioned the General Foods official who launched a personal attack on Ester Peterson, then President Johnson's consumer advisor, for her support of Truth in Packaging legislation. Today it is doubtful a food company official would be that blatant in an attack on legislation his company did not favor.

Public relations campaigns may have become more sophisticated, but so has the audience at which they are directed. Now the companies throw scientists, elaborate charts and graphs and statistics at their audience, but the message is not as readily accepted as it was 15 or even 5 years ago.

Not all of the companies have caught on yet. Some operated at this conference as they did in the days when most people believed there was nothing to criticize in the American food supply.

Other then being too fat, few Americans used to think much about what they were putting in their mouths, about its safety or nutritional value. Before the late '60s, food was not a major concern for most people in this country. This may explain the extraordinary ease with which the food industry's propaganda rolled out to the press. Food editors and the papers for for which they worked thought they were performing a public service, uncritically reporting what the food industry had to say at the annual conference.

In 1971 Sen. Frank Moss (D-Utah) brought a different message to the food editors. He told them they were not serving their readers by their uncritical reporting of good industry positions. The Columbia Journalism Review picked up on the theme. It disclosed that at some newspapers the food editor was an employee of the advertising department.

The article described the junkets provided by the food industry and revealed the kinds of gifts, from silver candlesticks and crystals bowls to refigerators and stoves, some food editors received from manufacturers. In those earlier years one company's gift to food editors at the conference was to ship home the gifts they received from industry participants -- two boxes full. The abolition of gift-giving was pushed through by food editors in 1968.

A number of newspapers reviewed the position of their food editors and the sections they produced and made some drastic changes. It was part of a larger movement that affected other sections of the newspaper as well.

One outgrowth of this self-criticim and examination was the formation of a professional organization for newspaper food writers, the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association. It now meets once a year to hear speakers with several points of veiw and includes consumer advocates and government officials. The organization is self supporting.

Some within the food industry have taken note of changes and made efforts to provide more information and less propaganda. But judging by this year's conference many either haven't gotten the message or have chosen to ignore it.

The Ralston Purina program, which featured DR. Elizabeth Whelan, a research assistant to DR. Frederick Stare, former chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard, is a case in point. Whelan is author with the controversial DR. Stare of "panic in the Pantry." The book's message, as New York Times reporter John Hess wrote in the August, 1978 issue of Saturday Review, is: "that all is safe in our larders and on the supermarket shelves and that anybody who says otherwise is a quack or worse." Stare has been repeatedly criticized for his close ties to the food industry. He has testified before Congress on behalf of the Cereal Institute, Kellogg, Nabisco and Pet Milk and has acted as a consultant to the sugar industry.

Whelan is also director of the American Council on Science and Health, a self-styled consumer organization.

The theme of Whelan's speech, one she has been making across the countryss for the last several years, is the same as that found in the book: "For additives now in use are safe and contribute to good health." During the question and answer session she found herself facing an antagonistic audience.

When she said, "If additives cause cancer, we have to assume we'd all react the same," and all get cancer, there was a loud chorus of no's from the audience.

When pressed to list what she described as an enormous number of additives that had been needlessly banned, Whelan came up with two: cyclamates and red dye no. 2.

When asked to defend her statement that the cost of banning a substance such as saccharin, should be a consideration even if the substance were dangerous to humans, Whelan backed down and said, "I should have used a different word. It's not just economics, but benefits."

Whelan strongly opposes a ban on saccharin because "it would throw the soft drink and diet industry into chaos and the cost would be passed on to consumers. Mainly," she said, a saccharin ban would have a "psychological cost, depriving us of something we enjoy." Later she acknowledged "there are very little medical benefits from saccharin, but it does provide enjoyment."

For the increasing number of food editors who believe it is essential to hear all sides on every issue, the conference did not get off to the best of starts. At a brunch sponsored by the Florida Department of Citrus the executive director of the Swanson Center for Nutrition, DR. Arnold Schaefer, called Dietary Goals for the United States "disastrous." At a time when the majority of scientists in this country have come to the conclusion that a prudent diet should be based roughly on the principles of the Dietary Goals report, Schaefer was saying: "There is no evidence at present to justify such a drastic change in the American diet. . ."

Schaefer was followed by the chairmen of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Thomas Carroll, who keynoted the conference. Carroll struck a theme often heard during the week: act as our messenger to your readers; tell them that the cause of high food prices is "inflation itself" and "the cost of regulations."

Carroll said food industry profits are quite low compared to other industies -- only 14 percent return on equity compared to an all industry average of 15 percent. But Carroll left no time for questions so no one could ask him how profits for the first six months of 1979 compared with those in previous years.

The new president of ITT Ccontinental Baking Co., G. Michael Hostage, was even more direct in his plea to food editors: "You more than any other group of individuals can serve as a bridge for greater understanding between the food industry and the consumer.

"We want almost desperately anxious for you to hear us out on the great consumer issues," Hostage said. Then he added: "We do not believe you should take everything we say as gospel. . ."

It was sound advice. Hostage's said the federal government has a "substantial budget for wide ranging nutrition education programs." The proposed federal budget for nutrition education and information programs in 1980 is $120 million. In the same year health care costs are projected to be $230 billion.

Hostage also said that USDA had found through consumer surveys that the public would rather have sodium nitrite in bacon than risk botulism poisoning.

According to Assistant Agriculture Secretaryt Carol Foreman, Hostage is "entirely wrong." No such surveys have been taken, but several congressmen have expressed their opposition to a ban on sodium nitrite to USDA.

While Hostage and Carroll spoke in generalities, the Kellogg's breakfast program was an example of the more specific hard sell. Kellogg, along with the other cereal companies, was especially concerned about proposed Federal Trade Commission rules to regulate children's television commercials. So Kellogg unveiled the results of a new study, which they say shows "there is no relationship between children's television viewing habits and sugar consumption or tooth decay." Some of the information from this study is included in the company's latest brochure, which was given to the food editors, "Kellogg's Ready-to-Eat Cereals: Nutrition and Advertising."

The booklet contains much of the same questionable information found in earlier Kellogg brochures, including the company's interpretation of a USDA graph showing the per capita consumption of sweeteners.

The latest brochure says: "Based on disappearance data. . . the per capita consumption of cane and beet sugars and corn sweeteners in the United States during the past 56 years (from 1920 to 1977) has hardly changed.

"These data indicate that claims of dramatic increases in sugar consumption are false."

But the USDA graph shows per capita consumption of sweeteners has risen from about 104 pounds in 1920 to 129 pounds in 1977. According to several government officials, sugar consumption "is higher than it has ever been.'

Factual information was available in some sessions. The Hoffman LaRoche panel on fructose offered new information about the use of the sweetener for diabetics. The panel, however, did not succeed in convincing its audience that fructose, which is at least 10 times more expensive than sugar, was particularly beneficial for healthy people.

The National Food Processors Association presented its views on food labeling along with those of a nutritionist.

Three panelists who discussed the relationship between nutrition, exercise and fitness did so without once mentioning the sponsoring company, Mazola.

Perhaps the most provocative program featured Dr. Estelle Ramey, a professor at Georgetown University and staunch supporter on the women's movement.

After telling her audience why women are the stronger sex, Ramey told the food writers to stop making women feel guilty for "taking short cuts in the kitchen." A woman needs "more reassurances in your writing that she's got a bad mother if she uses a cake mix," Ramey said. But at the same time she said the food industry has a responsibility to see that nothing is put into the food supply "that is toxic not only initially but over the long haul."

And she said it is the responsibility of the food pages to call the food industry's "attention to problems."

Ramey's view of what the food section should offer differs markedly from what most of her fellow speakers see as its role. And it may be closer to what an increasing number of food editors see as their journalistic function: to report the news -- all of it.