The pork industry, the government and irradiation technologists are putting a new dish on the menu of American households: fresh pork that doesn't have to be cooked until it's tough and leathery. In an effort to kill the ominous parasite that can lead to trichinosis -- without the high cooking temperatures -- the Food and Drug Administration approved on Monday the use of irradiation for cut or whole fresh pork carcasses.

Irradiation is a process in which gamma rays, X-rays or electrons are passed through a food or food package to kill insects, molds or microorganisms that can lead to spoilage and disease. It has been a source of continuing controversy for decades as proponents laud its safety and ability to extend the shelf life of foods while critics charge that it holds questionable and unanswered health problems.

While the process is already being used in other countries, it has thus far only been approved for use in the United States for spices, wheat, potatoes, medical devices and some drugs. The approval of irradiation for pork is the first of what FDA observers believe will be the passage of other commercial food uses of the technology, for fresh fruits and vegetables for example, perhaps this fall.

The dosage levels passed by the agency for pork (minimum 30, maximum 100 kilorads) will kill or halt the reproduction of trichinella spiralis, a parasite that can lodge itself in hogs and can infest humans if it is not killed by heat, processing or freezing. These low dosages are not intended to extend the product's shelf life.

While the pork industry, irradiation companies and pro-irradiation coalitions applauded the FDA approval, Sidney Wolfe of the consumer health organization Public Citizen said he "continues to believe that the process has not been found safe." Wolfe pointed to a seven-year study sponsored by the USDA and conducted by Raltech Scientific Services in which mice were fed irradiated chicken, which he said raised "a number of abnormal findings."

FDA's final order for the approval of irradiation for pork was delayed pending the review of data from this study. The agency did not find, however, any "biologically or statistically significant" effect of the treatment. "At doses below 100 kilorads, the difference between an irradiated food and a comparable nonirradiated food is so small as to make the foods indistinguishable with respect to safety," said the agency in its final ruling.

Harry Mussman, chairman of the Coalition for Food Irradiation, an organization composed of over 25 companies and associations from the food industry, said that it will probably be "several months" until irradiated pork makes any appearance on supermarket shelves. Pork processors will want to test consumer acceptance before they take "the deep plunge," said Mussman.

However, Martin Welt, president of Radiation Technology Inc., a Rockaway, N.J., irradiation plant which submitted the petition to which FDA granted its approval, said that his company has already irradiated some pork products. "We were told by some of our accounts that they were ready to ship immediately," said Welt. "You know what it means for a guy selling to a supermarket to get an exclusive on trichina-safe pork?" said Welt.

Welt said that in full operation, the boxed, cut pork carcasses would be brought to any of the company's four plants and placed on the irradiator. The device can irradiate 2,300 pounds of pork per minute, according to Welt, at a cost of approximately one cent per pound.

The irradiated pork is presently being labeled with statements indicating that it has undergone the treatment, said Welt. FDA spokesman Jim Greene said that at the wholesale level, both the irradiated pork products and the invoice or bills of bulk shipments must bear the label "treated by gamma radiation, do not irradiate again." Greene said reirradiation might elevate the kilorad dosage above the FDA regulation limit. At the retail level, the products must carry the label "treated by gamma radiation," said Greene.

Mussman, of the Coalition for Food Irradiation, speculated that pork products may also bear some kind of instructions for cooking such as "this product can be heated to any temperature." (The USDA recommendation to cook fresh pork to 170 degrees will no longer be necessary.) In fact, trichina-free pork could even be eaten raw, said David Meisinger, director of research and education of the National Pork Producers Council, although like chicken, he said, "it just doesn't taste good rare."

The approval of irradiation for pork comes at a time when the pork industry has set out a long-range plan to eliminate trichinosis in this country by 1987. According to Meisinger, once fear of trichinosis is eliminated, the industry expects a two percent increase in domestic demand.

In addition -- and what Sanford Miller, director of the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition says may be one of the biggest boons for pork -- fresh pork can now be exported. Other countries, aware of the presence of trichina in U.S. pork, do not allow the product to be imported. Meisinger estimates that the result would be a one-third increase in exportation of the product. The total economic return for a trichina-free pork industry -- including domestic and exported gains -- would be $449 million, according to Meisinger.

Other nations have eradicated the trichina problem with proper production practices, according to Mussman. Hogs and other animals get infected with trichina parasites by eating uncooked garbage or rodents infected with the disease. Feeding hogs garbage is a practice used by U.S. pork producers, according to Mussman; the problem occurs when it is not heated to a temperature high enough to kill the parasites. Garbage as a feed source is not used in other countries, according to Miller.

In addition, European countries use a device called a trichinascope which can detect presence of trichina parasites, although Meisinger said it's "not accurate enough." Nonetheless, U.S. swine are not inspected for trichina infestation at any point along the food chain and there is no tracing mechanism to identify where hogs or cattle have been raised should a carcass be infected with parasites or excessive residues.

"Irradiation in itself does not get to the source of the trichinosis problem," said George Wilson of the American Meat Institute, who added that the trade group has petitioned the USDA to require that all hogs coming to market be identifed as to their source.

"I can't say that irradiation will reduce the incentive to eliminate the trichina problem at its cause," said Mussman. "It's just a way of addressing the problem at the other end."

Irradiation approval for pork also comes at a time when other technologies for detecting trichinosis in pork are being explored by the industry and USDA. A new technique called ELISA (Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay) can detect trichina in blood samples of infected hogs.

Miller of FDA said ELISA doesn't kill the parasite or "take care of the [trichinosis] problem," although Wilson of AMI said that the technique would enable authorities to trace back the parasites to the offending farm, whereas irradiation would not.

Meisinger of the Pork Producers Council said the pork industry will probably adopt a "smorgasbord" of procedures for its trichina-free campaign.