THE IRRADIATION THAT ZAPPED the apples in my pie at the National Press Club last month could have killed me many times over. Yet the pie and the rest of the lunch it came with -- appetizers of beef and pork, and chicken kabob in a bed of rice -- tasted perfectly normal. The chicken was so tender you could cut it with a fork.

Irradiation of food -- exposing raw meat, vegetables and fruit to radioactive zapping by cesium 137 or cobalt 60, two elements that are waste products of the nuclear weapons and energy industries -- is said by its promoters to kill hazardous germs and pests, to prevent or at least delay spoilage without refrigeration, and to leave the food tastier than it would be after other preserving processes.

The atmosphere in the conference rooms where lunch was served was like a restaurant: gleaming white tablecloths, clinking tableware and animated chatter by a crowd of 150, including members of the news media, officials of food trade associations, congressional staffers and representatives of some Third World embassies and the Inter-American Development Bank. Only the television crews, the speeches and the displays of elderly irradiated foodstuffs looking pristine next to their decrepit nonirradiated counterparts were reminders that this was no ordinary afternoon of leisurely lunching in pleasant surroundings.

The affair was a determined celebration of a food processing method that has billed itself as up-to-date and "the last word" for 30 years, but has yet to win legalization or find a significant market. The lunchers were there as guests of Miramar Industries of McLean, a manufacturer of irradiation equipment, which had staged the invitation-only lunch on behalf of Rep. Sid Morrison (R-Wash.) and Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.). On this January day Morrison had for the third time introduced his bill to promote irradiation as a food preservation proc

Gorton explained to guests that irradiation could supplant dangerous pesticides like EDB, which the Environmental Protection Agency banned last September. Irradiation, he said, could kill such insect pests as "the codling moth in apples." Washington state is the nation's leading apple grower and, needless to say, the apples in the pies at lunch had come from there.

Irradiation could also eliminate salmonella in red meats, poultry and fish, Gorton said. High doses of irradiation can actually sterilize meat so that, vacuum-packed, it will keep for years at room temperature. Seven years ago, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told lunch guests, he had been served 10-year-old irradiated bacon by the Department of the Army. "I'm still here," he joked, "and it tasted like it had been produced that day."

If the food at the Miramar lunch tasted as if had been processed only the day before, however, it may have been because it had been processed only the day before, most of it at an irradiation plant in New Jersey. Moreover, the food had received only low doses suitable for killing insects, not zaps strong enough to extend shelf life.

As guests took first tentative bites of zapped strawberries, nuts and dried fruit on the tables, Morrison extolled other virtues of irradiation. No longer, he said, would American housewives need to cook pork until it resembled "an old army boot" -- irradiation would eliminate the trichinosis worm.

Morrison made a point of introducing Rep. Melvin Price (D- Ill.), former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Price, said Morrison, was one of irradiation's oldest friends, a man who for years had "pushed for what we call beneficial use . . . of some of the byproducts of the defense establishment."

The "byproducts" Morrison was talking about is the radioactive garbage of nuclear weapons manufacturing, specifically cesium 137. Morrison's district includes the Hanford Federal Nuclear Reservation, where much of the nation's nuclear weaponry is manufactured and where increasing quantities of radioactive trash are piling up. "Every congressman who has ever come out of that district has wanted to do something with that nuclear garbage," says Robert Alvarez of the Environmental Policy Institute.

ALMOST ANYTHING that would the quell the pork-borne threat of trichinosis, which lodges painfully and incurably in human muscle tissue, would probably seem a great idea to those at the National Pork Producers Council. Dave Meisinger, the Pork Producers' director of research and education, says trichinosis is rare in this country but when it strikes, the headlines are grabbers. The name of pork becomes mud.

In early 1982, just after the Pork Producers had set a goal of eradicating the trichina parasite by 1987, Bill McMullen of the Department of Energy approached them, promoting food irradiation. "I had never even heard of irradiation," Meisinger says. "I said, 'Sure, we're interested.' Trichinosis breaks out among swine when infected wild animals in vade the farm, said Dr. George Wilson of the American Meat Institute. Infected slaughterhouse scraps in feed spread the parasite further. Wilson said a new immunological tech- nique named ELISA (Enzyme-Linked Immuno-Sorbed Assay), which singles out infected carcasses, has a number of advantages over irradiation. Among other things, offending farms can be traced and forced to clean up their operations. Moreover, ELISA is cheaper, an estimated 10 to 15 cents per hog or less, a distinct saving from the 27 to 95 cents per hog that Department of Energy experts pro irradiation might cost.

Nevertheless, the Pork Producers endorsed Morrison's food irradiation bill, and continue to testify favorably on it. Why? Irradiation may do more than fight trichinosis, says Ray Hankes, chairman of the Pork Producers' trichina-safe pork task force. "Even at triple the cost, if we can extend shelf life and cut down on refrigeration, there may be some merchandising techniques that we are not even aware of that this may allow us to explore."

Meisinger concedes, though, that irradiation is less promising than ELISA and another trichinosis detection system called the Stomacher method. "Those I feel a lot more strongly about because they have been shown to work economically and effectively," he says.

SOME TECHNOLOGIES catch fire in the private sector and blaze their way into the homes of America. Food irradiation, however, has smoldered for 30 years in various federal agencies with little interest shown by private food companies. The major federal program now resides not in the Department of Agriculture, the usual home of the government's food- related activities, but in the so-called byproducts utilization program of the Department of Energy. How it got there and where it is going is a classic study in bureaucracy.

Food irradiation research began in earnest under Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace Program. The Army of that day hoped to convince the Food and Drug Administration that meat sterilized by radiation was a safe, tasty alternative to C-rations, but much of the research was flawed and in 1968 the FDA rescinded its earlier approval of irradiated bacon.

Meanwhile, a new irradiation program had sprung up in another corner of the bureaucracy. In 1972, Jacek (Jack) Sivinski had finished his work on irradiation for NASA. Later that decade, two spacecraft would land on Mars and analyze the soil for signs of life.

Sivinski's assignment had been to investigate irradiation as a method of sterilizing spacecraft to ensure that Earthling microbes did not contaminate Martian soil samples. As matters turned out, NASA chose another sterilization technique, but Sivinski was loath to disband his team of irradiation biologists. He thought he saw a solution. The Clean Water Act had just been passed, and mountains of municipal sludge would soon be piling up. U.S. policy at the time called for reprocessing the spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants to recapture plutonium for use as reactor fuel. But reprocessing also begins to separate out other radioactive elements, including a lot of highly radioactive cesium 137. Siviniski thought up a use for it: killing the sewage pathogens so that sterile sludge could fertilize the gardens of America.

The Atomic Energy Commission, now the Department of Energy, launched the program. But President Carter spoiled Sivinski's plans when he banned reprocessing in order to keep plutonium out of civilian hands. A side effect of the Carter decision was to leave cesium locked in the spent fuel rods.

Some cesium was available, however, from reprocessing of nuclear weapons waste. Sivinski got his operation moved to the weapons end of the DOE; there its major goal became food irradiation. The byproducts utilization program was born.

In 1981, Sivinski left the Department of Energy for a job at CH2M Hill, a major environmental engineering consulting firm (The "CH2M" stands for Cornell, Howland, Hayes and Merrifield, founders of one of the two firms that parented the present corporation). Despite the new job, Sivinski's role changed little. He directs the CH2M's irradiation research, which is all under contract to his old office at DOE, and he continues to trot around the globe preaching irradiation. "The developing countries, those are the ones who need to go into irradiation to balance their payments, for quarantine requirements, and to feed their hungry," he says.

ROBERT MORRIS, a postharvest food technologist at the Agency for International Development, is a pale, intense man who can hardly contain his enthusiasm for food irradiation. He can foresee his agency conducting training programs to teach Third World nations to run irradiators. This is all still a dream, because AID as yet has no policy on food irradiation, but Morris is doing his best to promote it to his supervisors. "I see my role as a lobbyist for the developing countries," he says.

Morris was introduced to food irradiation in April 1982, shortly after Jack Sivinski paid a visit to his boss. His initial skepticism soon disappeared. "My close association with the wisdom of Jack Sivinski helped persuade me," he says. " . . . I have traveled with Jack, and have been in close contact with DOE since April 1982."

Again and again the same names show up in the unfolding irradiation story. Recently AID gave $100,000 to the National Food Processors Association, an industry irradiation backer, to investigate the role food irradiation might play in President Reagan's Caribbean Basin Initiative. Now DOE is lending CH2M Hill's Sivinski to head up the study.

IN THE PAST, despite the best efforts of Morrison, Gorton and their like-minded colleagues, food irradiation never generated much enthusiasm on Capitol Hill. One staffer from a relevant committee says that Morrison is the only congressman who ever called about it. Nor did the FDA show much inclination to legalize irradiation for general use on food.

Then, in 1983, a series of events helped launch a new irradiation drive. First, Margaret Heckler, a longtime booster, became secretary of health and human services, the agency that oversees FDA. (Heckler had for 16 years represented the Massachusetts congressional district that was home to the Army's original irradiation research. "She dragged me to the Natick labs in 1979, looking desperately for a way to keep them opened," recalls Carol Tucker Foreman, who was an assistant agriclture secretary under Carter.)

Then the hazards of EDB, a widely used agricultural pesticide, came to public attention and the Environmen tal Protection Agency prepared to ban its use. Irradiation's proponents seized the opportunity to promote irradiation as a substitute. In November, Morrison introduced the first version of his bill.

Meanwhile, Heckler began pressing the FDA to legalize irradiation. "Now is the time to move forward with this promising technique," Heckler proclaimed to the National Food Processors Association when a draft of proposed legalizing regulations finally appeared in the Fed-eral Register in February 1984.

A YEAR LATER, though, the FDA still hasn't issued final regulations. And when and if it does, that doesn't mean that Safeway shelves will sag under the weight of all that irradiated food. To some in the food industry, irradiation is a waste of money. To others, it's only one of several competing technologies, in most cases not the best of them. And to most experts on Third World hunger, it's simply the latest in a series of high-tech solutions that always fail because the roots of hunger lie in unequal distribution of wealth, not agricultural shortage.

Regarding salmonella in chick Dr. Kenneth May of Holly Farms has this to say: "Why should multimillions of dollars be spent to solve a problem that's easily solvable in anyone's kitchen? Salmo-nella is destroyed by heating to 140 degrees for five minutes."

For fruit and vegetables, irradiation doesn't always work and has strong competitors, says Agriculture's Dr. Milton Cuye: dips to kill the pests, worm detection devices, biological pest control and fly-free zones such as parts of the Rio Grande Valley, where fruit flies have been wiped out.

Irradiation does work well on apples. And apples need irradiation, so the story goes, because Washington state faces a glut and needs new markets abroad. Japan, a major potential customer, bars Washington apples because -- say the Japanese -- they are infested by the codling moth. Morrison, an apple farmer, is personally concerned.

This summer the byproducts utilization program will send a demonstration irradiator to the orchards of Washington. But all for naught, according to officials of several apple trade associa- tions. "In my opinion it's a manuever by the Japanese government to protect their own apple industry," says Ken Pollard of the Western New York Apple Growers Association, in one typical comment. "After World War II, when MacArthur was there, we shipped an awful lot of apples to Japan and there was never any codling moth problem."

Reducing postharvest losses in the Third World is still a laudable goal, but irradiation is not the way to do it, say experts on agriculture in developing countries. The scale is wrong. To pay for themselves irradiators must process massive quantities of food. But Third World farmers are minuscule producers. "It's bizarre to think of them trundling two tons of grain from their shack to an irradia- tor and back," says Cliff Lewis of the World Bank.

Keeping bugs and bacteria out of grain is easy, says Dr. Joan Gussow, professor of nutrition at Columbia University, citing Nicaragua's latest grain preservation technology: "Very simple storage bins made of concrete plastered over woven straw that hold the grain off the ground to keep it dry."

UNTIL FOOD irradiation came along, cesium 137 was noth troublesome piece of garbage for the nuclear industry. It is highly radioactive, with a 30-year half-life, and there was nothing to do with it but bury it with the rest of the nuclear waste.

Unfortunately, though, the reprocessing that would extract it from the rest of the garbage is expensive, so expensive that despite President Reagan's invitation to private industry to develop the technology, there have been no takers. Jerry Bru the house sub conservation and power explains why: "If you take the value of all the recovered products, you still can't come close to equaling the cost of reprocessing."

That leaves the nuclear weapons program as the only source of the isotope; currently the byproducts utilization program, which markets it, has none available. Cobalt 60, the alternative irradiation isotope, comes only from 11 Canadian reactors; people like Siviniski worry that if food irradiation begins on a large scale, cobalt will be in similar short supply. Meanwhile, despite the cesium shortage, the price the bytion program charges for it is only one-tenth what Canadian cobalt sells for; it's a price that comes nowhere near recouping production costs, raising questions as to whether some sort of special promotion is under way. The program's William Remini responded that the price was set years ago. "I don't think it's ever been the policy of the U.S. government to change its price based on supply and demand," he said.