Imagine a supermarket where the only cheese to be found is a glass jar of Cheez Whiz, where hot dogs (even chicken dogs) can't be found, where fish is wrapped in newspaper and where -- horrors of horrors -- there is not a single container of ice cream in the freezer case.

Such are the ominous predictions from food manufacturers who say that Oregon supermarkets may soon turn into large versions of empty Moscow food shops if voters approve a controversial packaging initiative in next week's state elections.

The initiative, designed by environmentalists to make corporate America move more quickly to redesign packaging and cut down on solid waste, would require manufacturers to meet strict recycling standards -- or face a ban on the products they sell in the state.

Specifically, if the initiative passes, all packaging would have to meet at least one of the following standards by 1993:

It must be reusable five or more times for the same or substantially similar purpose. Reusable soda bottles and refillable detergent containers (such as those being sold in Canada by Procter & Gamble Co.) would fit in this category, proponents say.

At least 50 percent of the package -- measured by weight, not volume -- must be made of recycled material. Environmentalists say cereal boxes made of recycled paperboard qualify under this standard.

The package must be made of material that is being recycled in Oregon. This requirement, which would apply to aluminum cans and glass bottles for instance, is phased in over a 12-year period, beginning with a 1993 requirement that 15 percent of the disposed material in question be recycled instead of thrown in landfills. The recycling rate climbs gradually to 60 percent by the the year 2002.

There are exemptions for medications, tamper-resistant seals and any packages where federal law imposes different requirements than the state. There is also a hardship exemption when there is no qualifying packaging available.

Environmentalists say these standards are technologically feasible -- and the only way to get business to be more responsive to cleaning up the environment. They acknowledge that the measure would require major research and ultimately significant retooling of the packaging production lines as well as a massive recycling effort by industry and the state. But, they add, they are confident that business will respond, just as it did when Oregon enacted the nation's first bottle deposit law in 1971.

"At the time, the aluminum industry said the law wouldn't work and aluminum cans would be banned in Oregon because aluminum cans weren't recyclable then," says Joel Ario, director of Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, the sponsor of the initiative. "But industry made the investment in recycling and now 60 percent of aluminum cans are recycled nationally ... Oregon was the first state to ban aerosol spray cans using CFC {chlorofluorocarbons} in 1977. Industry said it would again stop selling and instead it came up with the pump-spray can."

Yet business after business -- from the largest food manufacturer to the corner grocery store -- contends that the net effect of the standards would not be more recycling -- just the disappearance of thousands of products because, they say, the recycling standards cannot be met in the required time frame.

"We have a lot of products we're dealing with here where nothing has been recycled and where there are no materials available to be recycled," says Steve McCoid of the Oregon Food Industries Association, which represents the state's grocers. "Frankly in the two-year time frame, I don't think it can be done," he says, adding that it is unclear under the initiative how many of these products, if any, would receive exemptions.

"The recycling initiative in Oregon is not a recycling bill but more a bill to force products to be banned from the marketplace," comments Deborah Becker, vice president of environmental policy for Kraft General Foods. If passed, "all natural cheese products now in flexible packaging would be gone from the shelves. All refrigerated dairy products such as sour cream, yogurt and cottage cheese would disappear. All the Oscar Mayer luncheon meats wouldn't be able to be sold. There would be nothing microwaveable, and in the frozen area you'd find Lender's bagels, but that's about it," says Becker, thinking out loud about the effect the initiative would have on her company's products.

Still, Ario is hard pressed to believe that companies like Kraft General Food would pull their products from Oregon shelves. "Oregon is a state with 3 million people and no company in the United States is so big that it can ignore 3 million people," he says.

At the moment, business certainly is not ignoring the state. It has poured more than $2 million into the campaign to defeat the measure -- more than five times as much as the environmentalists.

"It seems like an unfair and precipitous response to a whole host of food packaging, which has delivered to consumers a safe and wholesome food supply {and} which has met consumer demand for convenience and higher quality," says Glenn D. Gamber, director of program management for the National Food Processors Association. "These packages are not developed in a vacuum and to suddenly and abruptly say they are bad is to impose an enormous disruption on the market, which seems inappropriate."

Food industry officials say food products would be particularly hard hit because, they note, food is not like a can of paint -- or even a bottle of detergent. "You need to preserve and protect a food product as well as keep it fresh; you don't have to keep detergent fresh," notes Procter & Gamble spokeswoman Wendy Jacques.

"Obviously you can wrap fish in paper but it is not as fresh, nor does the paper protect it like current packaging does -- and it would be a lot bulkier," says Ginny Burdick, spokeswoman for the Oregon Committee for Recycling -- the committee formed to fight the initiative. "Substitutes, if available, will risk increased food spoilage, bacterial contamination and the spread of communicable diseases," the committee says in one of its campaign pamphlets.

Food processors also say that the initiative may inconvenience consumers who want more portable, easy-to-dispose single-serving products. Del Monte Foods, for instance, until recently sold its single-serving pudding and fruit cups only in aluminum containers. But recently, the company began offering the pudding in plastic cups as well -- just like competitive brands. "It is the packaging consumers say they want and is in fact what they buy -- even though the aluminum cup is recyclable," says DeeAnn Campbell, Del Monte's vice president for corporate communications. "So now we offer it both ways."

Allen Hershkowitz, scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, dismisses these arguments however, labeling them as "a red herring. I grew up on fruit cocktails that weren't packaged individually and there was no {food safety} catastrophe."

Among business' concerns is the fear that if successful, the initiative will be adopted by other states, as was Oregon's bottle bill in the 1970s. An almost identical bill was to have been on the Massachusetts ballot next week but was knocked off because of a legal technicality. Now the measure is pending in the state legislature and a host of environmental groups in other states are gearing up to follow suit.

At the moment, the vote in Oregon is expected to be close. Initial polls taken in late August showed 80 percent of the voters in favor of the initiative. But after business launched its campaign against the measure, support dropped to 60 percent in late September. By late October, polls showed the initiative in a dead-heat, with 47 percent for, 47 percent against and 6 percent undecided.

"I think it's going to be a close vote," says Steve McCoid, president of the Association of Oregon Food Industries, a trade association for retail groceries, most of whom oppose the measure. Fred Meyer Inc., one of the largest supermarket chains in the Northwest, is one of the few food businesses that is remaining neutral on the initiative. "If the Oregon voters choose to pass it, then we will be supportive of that position and make sure it works," says Cheryl Perrin, Fred Meyer's vice president for public affairs.

The Oregon initiative comes at a time when food manufacturers are beginning to address the growing environmental concerns. Many packages have already been redesigned -- although the changes may not be readily evident to supermarket shoppers. Cereal and cake mix boxes, for instance, are usually made with 100 percent recycled paperboard. Soft drink bottles and plastic peanut butter jars are made with polyethylene terepthalate (PET), which can be recycled into nonfood products such as paint brushes, carpets, car bumpers and surfboards.

At the same time, the weight of glass bottles, metal cans, plastic dishes and bags has been reduced in hundreds of products. Nabisco Brands Inc., for instance, this year is saving some 300,000 pounds of plastic by reducing the thickness of the inner bags of snack crackers. By reducing the weight of its plastic margarine tubs, it has also cut an additional 624,000 pounds of plastic. Procter & Gamble's Crisco Oil bottle now uses 28 percent less plastic to hold the same amount of oil, while Del Monte Foods has trimmed the weight of its steel cans enough to save 14,000 tons of steel over what was used 10 years ago.

Then there is H.J. Heinz Co., whose plastic squeezable ketchup bottle has run into considerable environmental criticism. Satisfying the consumer "is a double-edged sword," says Heinz spokeswoman Beth Adams. "In 1983 when we introduced our plastic ketchup bottle, it was viewed as the greatest thing since sliced bread -- it was a lighter product, it didn't break and it was squeezable. In seven short years, we became the bad guys on the block," because the disposable bottle was not recyclable as the glass bottle was. As a result, the company spent $8 million to develop a recyclable plastic bottle. The bottle is scheduled to be in the marketplace next year, but now the company is faced with the problem of finding a recycling program that will accept its newly designed bottle.

Pillsbury Co. also has received environmental kudos for its microwave cake and brownie mixes. Instead of enclosing a plastic microwaveable pan in each box, Pillsbury has a starter kit with the pan and then a less expensive refill box without the pan. The starter/refill concept bucks the make-food-as convenient-as-possible policy of most food manufacturers and consequently has been a marketing challenge for Pillsbury. Company officials acknowledge that the mixes have been losing market share to competitors that offer both the mix and a pan in every single box. Even so, they say they plan to stick it out. "The environmental movement has caught up to us," says Keith Kale, senior marketing manager for Pillsbury's microwave mixes and quick breads.

Despite these efforts, environmentalists say much more needs to be done -- and faster. "A lot of what's going on is just good business sense," says Lisa Collaton of Environmental Action. Reducing the weight of containers, after all, not only lowers the costs of making the goods but reduces transportation costs as well. What's more, Collaton adds, for every recyclable ketchup bottle, there are dozens of other food products that only add more paper and plastic to the municipal waste dump. The list is lengthy, says Collaton, as she names a few: aseptic juice boxes, premeasured coffee filters, single-serving fruit cups and microwaveable multicourse frozen dinners.

"Companies are not going to move unless they are made responsible for the disposal impact of their products," she says. That, she says, is what the Oregon initiative is all about.