IT IS THE Painted Desert of the supermarkets. Smooth sands of cherry red, orange and violet powdered beverage mixes in beige barrels all in a row, drifts of yellow cornmeal and self-rising flour in plastic bins. "Amazing," "fascinating," as two shoppers put it, after eyeing Safeway's brand-new bulk-food department in its Greenbelt store last week. Bulk foods take us full circle from the general store of the horse-and-buggy age to today's trend-setting supermarkets.

Touted as the latest marketing technique, bulk-food departments are appearing across the nation, from Safeway in California to First National Supermarkets in Ohio and New England, which has 27 stores with over 200 items in its bulk-food sections. Locally, loose mixes of dried fruit and nuts are commonplace in many supermarkets. The superstore Grand Unions in Alexandria and Rockville have grains, spices, coffee and tea in their 160-item bulk sections and Giant Gourmet Someplace Special recently opened a salad bar that regularly stocks over 40 choices, including five different kinds of greens. Bulk buying at Safeway's Greenbelt store, with the area's largest selection of bulk products, offers such items as corn chips, cookies, gravy mixes, gelatin, Cheerios and pet food.

The Food and Drug Administration, reacting to the trend, on Sept. 9 released a draft of sanitation guidelines geared for the retail industry and regulatory officials involved in bulk-food sales.

Raymond Beaulieu, assistant director for interagency programs for the FDA's Retail Food Protection Branch, said that the FDA's basic concern with unwrapped food was to provide protection in the guidelines. "All our work was toward minimizing possibilities of the unknowns," he said.

Meant to "clarify and supplement" public health codes, the federal guidelines will not be mandatory when finalized, after soliciting comments and final drafting. States and local jurisdictions may choose to adopt or interpret federal sanitation codes, although Beaulieu said that most regulations are "pretty much based on some code" that the federal government developed. Some states and jurisdictions, such as Massachusetts, have issued their own bulk-food guidelines. The new Safeway in Greenbelt opened its department using the basic sanitation principles of the Prince George's County health department.

Proponents of bulk-food sales say it allows shoppers to determine their own quantity needs, as well as enabling elderly consumers on fixed incomes, food stamp recipients or singles to buy smaller amounts; for example, one cup of flour instead of a pound. In addition, "this merchandising approach is seen as possessing considerable nostalgic appeal," state the FDA guidelines. And because packaging and brand-name advertising costs are eliminated, bulk foods can result in cheaper prices. Safeway promises shoppers an average of 40-percent savings, no matter how much they buy. Spices, said Eric Birckner, bulk-foods merchandiser of the new department, offer the best savings--up to 70 percent; other items might produce savings of only 20 percent. (A cursory comparison showed bulk turmeric at $5.90 a pound, boxed $1.19 for 1.37 ounces, or about $13.90 a pound; bulk sugar at 42 cents a pound, bagged Town House $1.23 for two pounds, or about 61 cents a pound.)

Bulk shopping is an activity, rather than the quick grab-the-package shopping routine. At Safeway's new department, each bulk item is labeled with code number, title, ingredients and the recipe, if applicable. For instance, corn- or bran-muffin mix directions are written in small letters on the container label. Now, customers have to copy the recipe down themselves, although Birckner said the store is waiting for recipe labels, so that customers will be able to take the directions with them. Even so, the directions and the product don't necessarily end up together as they would on a box.

You bag your own, write down the code number on a paper clasp and use it to tie the plastic bag. Scales are located along each aisle, but attendants at the centrally located "weigh station" plug the item's code number into a computerized scale to weigh and price the package. It takes one trip to familiarize the customer; it "becomes just like pumping gas," said John Farquar, vice president of science and technology of the Food Marketing Institute.

Tom Smith, of the advocacy group Public Voice, said he thinks marketers are capitalizing on the health food image, that if people are scooping out the product themselves it's somehow "closer to its original state, right from the pudding tree."

Merchandise is provided by national brand companies, said Birckner, although specific brands are not identified on the labels. Birckner said the companies don't want to be identified because they "don't want to get in the middle of things." A company doesn't want customers seeing the same product sold cheaper in bulk that can be purchased for more money in a box or can. As for brand-loyal shoppers, Larry Johnson, public relations manager for Safeway, said the chain "will not win them over overnight."

Farquar of FMI said the trade association has been working with the FDA to develop the federal guidelines and finds the draft "a workable document," although John Barnett of First National Supermarkets said that chain "sets higher standards for ourselves," than were spelled out in the guidelines in terms of cleaning, storage areas and containers. "We would like to see them as stringent as possible," he said. Giant's Barry Scher said the draft is "not that restrictive" and he "doesn't know of any facet of it being a burden to our operations."

Excerpts from the FDA guidelines and comments:

* Bulk foods shall be dispensed only from product modules that are protected by close fitting, individual covers. If opened by the customer, the covers shall be self-closing and shall remain closed when not in use.

At Safeway, for example, the bins have plastic covers that flap-close. This precaution makes it necessary to have both hands free while shopping; no babies on your arm or other products in your hand.

* Customers are informed of their responsibilities for protecting displayed food from contamination.

At the new Safeway, signs are placed in each aisle that say "Thank you for not smoking" and "Please use tongs or scoops." The signs don't say "Don't use hands," a warning that would emphasize the negative, said Birckner.

Some people, though, may not get the message. After a boy reached his hand in a candy barrel to sample what looked like M&M's last Tuesday, Safeway's Johnson said, "It's like a fantasy to many people with all the bright colors." Said Birckner, you're "not going to be able to catch everything 100 percent of the time."

A college student shopping at the department for the first time on Tuesday stuck her hand in the corn chips bin to see if they tasted like the packaged Doritos she had already placed in her cart. "Was I not supposed to do that?" she asked.

The FDA has three different public health concerns--spread of communicable disease, outbreaks of food-borne illness and contamination of food, unintentional and intentional.

Tom Schwarz, assistant director for program development of FDA's Retail Food Protection Branch, said that to safeguard the spread of communicable diseases, the guidelines aim to "minimize contact" between the shopper and the food.

The "Dispensing Utensils" section of the guidelines states that certain foods "with high likelihood of being tasted: candy, dried fruit and snack foods," should be dispensed by gravity (a container where the food cannot be touched, but passes through a chute that the customer can regulate). But Schwarz said that the "industry has indicated that gravity feeders don't sell as much product as the barrel type." With this system the consumer "can't smell it, can't touch it," he said. But, Schwarz continued, "there's nothing to stop a store from giving people a taste."

Dr. Douglas Archer, a microbiologist in the FDA's Division of Microbiology, said that the major threat of spreading bacteria by hand would be diseases transmitted through fecal contamination. Intestinal pathogens as well as viruses--"runny noses and little hands" are also possibilities, he said. Archer said that such organisms "might persist in low numbers," in a bulk-food bin and that in the case of most communicable diseases, someone would have to receive "an awful big dose."

Pinpointing the cause of a disease, though, is tough to do. It's "very difficult to come up with evidence that a sneeze has caused any type of sickness," said FDA's Beaulieu.

Schwarz said the whole document addresses the question of contamination; the self closing lids, requirements for the height of access and the depth of the containers. The agency has a lot of information that these containers "can be contaminated with bugs" with infrequent product turnover and improper cleaning, Schwarz said.

"The whole effort of the retail industry is to safeguard the food. Our job is to prevent it contamination ," said FMI's Farquar. Alan Taylor, chief of the Prince George's County environmental health department, who has not yet seen Safeway's new operation, said "There's other open food that's offered to the public. When you consider it bulk foods , it's not any different than a salad bar."

* Tongs, scoops, ladles or spatulas used by customers are cleaned and sanitized at least once in every 12-hour period or use. Product modules are cleaned and sanitized prior to restocking, or at least once in every 12-hour period or use, or at intervals throughout the day based on type of food and amount of food particle accumulation or soiling.

They'll have "a helluva time keeping it from getting messy," commented one shopper after surveying Safeway's bulk food operation for the first time. Birckner said that Safeway's removable scoopers and chains are cleaned every evening with vinegar and water and the barrels are relined before the product is refilled.

The bins have false bottoms that are adjusted at different levels depending on the sales potential of the item; fast-selling items have deeper false bottoms than slow movers. FDA's Schwarz said a potential problem could be stores that refill bins, leaving the older product at the bottom. Birckner said Safeway's containers are completely emptied before being refilled.

Although the products are not dated, the shipping packages are marked with the date they arrive at the store. Birckner said they will be carefully monitored for freshness. Unlike other storage facilties, where the emphasis is to stockpile, the storage for the bulk-foods operation is small--to avoid staleness. A two-tiered metal shelf in the bulk-foods storage room contains 18-pound containers of ground cinnamon, sweet basil, parsley and chili powder from Tones, a company in Des Moines, dated 9/1. Three boxes of La Choy noodles dated 9/13 sit alongside. "Let it get close to running out," Birckner said is the bulk-food philosophy.

* Management has a significant obligation to supervise the bulk food merchandising operation. Employees working in the bulk food operation need to be knowledgeable of, and responsible for, sanitary practices established to protect the consumer.

Beaulieu said that management's role "has to be stressed." FMI's Farquar said that the association is organizing seminars and instruction kits for members in bulk-food merchandising; Safeway hired seven full-time food service employes to work in its department and each went through a two-day training program. Approximately three employes will be on the floor at all times.

In addition, it is the health department's responsibility to monitor the store. Barnett of First National Supermarkets said the chain "has a lot of people out there looking over our shoulders."

Smith of Public Voice said that enforcement from health departments varies. "Depending on where you are, it's either diligent or nonexistent," he said, recommending that consumers exercise caution while bulk shopping.

* Single-service plastic bags or disposable liners used as product modules shall be of sufficient weight and thickness to resist tears and cuts. In another section No "personal" containers are filled with bulk food.

Safeway's single-service plastic bags are heavier than the traditional produce bags, but some items just don't lend themselves to lengthy storage in a plastic bag. And buying a large quantity only to have it get stale defeats one purpose of bulk buying. To retain flavor and freshness, Safeway "recommends an air-sealed container," said Larry Johnson. So the department sells spice racks and glass jars and bottles in varying shapes and sizes.

"That's the nuisance," said one man, in the midst of making his own price comparison between the bulk-food department and the regular aisles, noting that the poultry seasoning was the "best deal" of his findings so far. He'll have to save bottles and cans for storage now, he said. For the items where the price difference isn't that great, he said, he'll stick with packages.

Another shopper said she was attracted to the idea that she wouldn't be "taking home a lot of trash to throw away," the packages that other products come in.

Safeway's Johnson said that the "ultimate success of this operation is that it have good credibility" with consumers. Farquar, who said "this is the first crack out of the box," predicts that the art of bulk-food merchandising will go through various evolutions. "Time will tell how this pans out," he said.