Food poisoning is nothing new -- the little bugs that cause people to get sick have been around for a long time. What is new is a growing awareness among consumers about contaminated food -- and a growing demand that something be done about it.

"There's an unusual amount of momentum" among consumers concerning the issue of food-borne illness, says Deborah Schechter, director of Americans for Safe Food, a project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington advocacy group. And there are signs the problem is beginning to capture the attention of legislators, the industry and government officials.

For example, a bill expected to be introduced shortly by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, would make some drastic changes in the way the Department of Agriculture inspects meat and poultry.

According to a draft version of the bill, USDA would be required to conduct a monitoring program to detect disease-causing microorganisms in meat and poultry products and to set limits on the number of organisms that such products could contain.

Under such a system, only a small number of the birds produced by a poultry plant could be contaminated with salmonella or other disease-causing organisms. USDA data shows that approximately one in three broilers produced is contaminated with salmonella. The department has never released contamination-rate statistics on an individual plant basis, but it is known that some plants maintain consistently lower rates of contaminated poultry than others.

Plants selling products that violate microbiological limits could eventually be put out of business under the bill currently being discussed. A similar monitoring system, to be operated by USDA, would be established for fish and shellfish that exceed standards for microorganisms and toxic chemicals.

"It's a really good first step," says Diane Heiman, government affairs director for Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a Washington-based consumer group that has actively campaigned for changes in the government's approach to food safety. Last year, Public Voice published a report documenting the hazards related to tainted fish and shellfish and calling for a mandatory fish inspection program.

While mandatory inspection programs operated by USDA exist for meat and poultry products, no such program has ever been created for fish products. The Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) runs a voluntary program, which some companies utilize in their marketing campaigns as an indication of quality.

Setting legal limits on microorganisms for raw meat and poultry "would be premature," according to Mahlon Burnette, technical consultant for the National Broiler Council, a trade association of chicken processors.

Burnette says there is no data base to use for setting acceptable levels and no known correlation between levels of microorganisms and human illness. Several National Academy of Science reports over the last few years have rejected the idea, he says, including an NAS report issued last May on poultry inspection.

USDA "doesn't have the capability of setting tolerances," agrees Susan Magaw, director of congressional relations for the American Meat Institute. Under the draft bill, companies that can't meet the tolerance would be "out of business," notes Magaw, adding, "That's pretty tough."

However, Schechter argues that tolerances would force companies to make needed changes in their production systems. Heiman says companies would have an incentive to conduct their own testing to make sure their products meet the legal limits.

A research funding bill that has the support of industry groups and USDA was introduced recently by Sens. David Pryor (D-Ark.), Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) and Ted Cochran (R-Miss.). Rather than imposing any new regulatory system, the legislation would create a two-year, $45 million research program to determine where contamination occurs in the meat and poultry food chain and how it can be prevented.

USDA officials have always asserted that the problem of contaminated food lies not just with the processor, but spans the entire system, beginning with the feed given to livestock and poultry and ending with sloppy food handling practiced by food service personnel and consumers. William H. Dubbert, assistant deputy administrator for science in USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), told a recent symposium on salmonella at Texas A&M University Research and Extention Center at Dallas that "we can't deal with the salmonella problem by addressing only a single phase of the cycle."

USDA appears bent on sticking to its current policies. Nancy Robinson, director of information and legislation at FSIS, says beyond ongoing programs like research projects and development of better testing methods to detect organisms, the agency has no plans for any new major initiatives such as those suggested by Leahy.

USDA recently turned down a request by a coalition of consumer groups to require all fresh poultry and meat to be labeled with cooking and handling instructions. However, Burnette says consumers will begin seeing poultry labels with handling and cooking information in the "very near future," as part of a voluntary labeling program recently adopted by NBC's board of directors. Widespread participation among companies is anticipated, he says. In addition, both NBC and AMI are developing recommended manufacturing procedures, to be distributed to companies for their voluntary adoption.

The fish industry has traditionally favored a strengthened inspection system as a way to increase product quality across the industry, says Dick Gutting, vice president for government relations at the National Fisheries Institute, a trade association of harvesting, processing and marketing companies.

Last year, Congress ordered NMFS to conduct a two-year study of a mandatory seafood surveillance system. The agency recently announced that it will contract with the National Academy of Sciences to focus on the health and safety issues involving seafood.

According to Public Voice, in 1982 seafood was responsible for 24 percent of food poisoning outbreaks for which the food containing the harmful agent could be identified. Meanwhile, fish consumption is rising, and in 1985 reached a record 14.5 pounds per capita, an 11 percent increase since 1980. However, the study may take as long as three to four years to complete, and Gutting says the industry would probably want to see the study completed first before a surveillance or inspection program is implemented