It was the Great Cranberry Scare of 1959.

"Government Warns Cranberry Buyers" and "All Cranberries Face Nationwide U.S. Test" were two typical newspaper headlines as the apparent crisis unfolded across the nation.

The federal government, having found samples of cranberries contaminated with a chemical weed killer known to cause cancer in laboratory animals, advised consumbers to avoid cranberries that it hadn't tested and approved. But it was just three weeks before Thanksgiving, and only a limited amount of the fruit was cleared for sale.

Thus, for the typical American family, that became the Thanksgiving without cranberries.

Now, after 21 years and a series of other food bans, warnings and controversies, the Great Cranberry Scare is viewed as marking the end of consumer innocence about food safety in the modern technological age and the start of a new era of government food regulation.

Today, the debate still rages. The food industry believes it can make a compelling case that the American food supply is the safest and cleanest in the world, and that recalls, warnings and bans represent the exception rather than the rule. Industry leaders say the government has overreacted in some cases in an effort to comply with food safety laws.

Consumer activists contest that assertion and say that science doesn't yet know the long-term effects that some foods and their chemical additives have on people. They say the goverment's proper role is to enforce the laws and protect the consumer, although they are willing to debate how far the law should go.

"Until the cranberry crisis, the American people assumed that if a product was in the food supply it was okay and that it contained no risk," said James Turner, a Washington-based lawyer and consumer activist who wrote "The Chemical Feast," a book about chemicals and pesticides in the food supply.

The cranberry scare changed all that. For the first time, the public seemed to have reason to fear that there were no guarantees about food safety.

This fear was strengthened by later, periodic scares about food safety. Even today, the mere mention of some of the major safety scares of the '60s and '70s conjures up vivid memories: Saccharin. Cyclamates. Red Dye No. 2. Nitrites. Kepone. PCB. Mercury in fish. DES.

In recent years, the consumer has been bombarded by food recall announcements that have almost become routine. In the last year, for example, the Food and Drug Administration monitored the recall of 153 food products that it said possibly had adverse health effects. Recalls now are so common that since 1967 the FDA has published a weekly report of products that have been recalled.

The government also issues warnings when there appears to be a particularly serious problem with a food product. In the cranberry case, for example the warning came after government chemists found residues of aminotriazole, a chemical pesticide, on samples of cranberries bound for market.

At that time, federal rules allowed the use of aminotriazole on cranberry cropland, but only after cranberries had been harvested and removed from the area being sprayed. That was to prevent any residue from the chemical from getting on the cranberries.

The use of aminotriazole, still classified as a carcinogen, is even more limited today. Now it can't be used on any cropland at any time. The areas where it can be sprayed include roadsides, fence rows and other similar areas. The manufacturer describes sales of aminotriazole today as "very minor."

Foods implicated in safety scares since cranberries represent a broad spectrum of products: canned goods, meat, candy, frozen foods. Specific foods that have been in trouble are mushrooms, peanut butter, bacon, fish, jelly beans and -- in one recent and emotion-filled case -- baby formulas.

All of this infuriates food manufacturers. "There is absolutely no question in my mind that we not only have the safest food in the world, but we have the safest food supply the nation has ever known," said Jim May, vice president of public affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade organization of 140 major food manufacturers.

May said the problem is not food safety so much as outmoded laws that dictate the automatic recall of foods linked to cancer in tests on animals. Some businessmen downplay the importance of those studies.

"There is nothing you can feed the laboratory rats in exaggerated doses that won't produce some toxic effect," said Robert deWilde, a product manager for Union Carbide at its Amchem Products plant in Ambler, Pa.

"Those rats they use are bread specifically to show this type of symptom," he said. The plant where deWilde works produces aminotriazole, the weedkiller that triggered the 1959 scare when it was used by some cranberry farmers.

Consumer activists who have fought to eliminate foods containing substances linked to cancer contend that scientists don't yet know the extent of the hazard to people. The problems, they say, are the cumulative effect of the carcinogens -- the term for cancer-causing materials -- on the human system and the way the chemicals react on each other in the body. Moreover, the point at which one person's system is affected my differ from someone else's system, they say.

"We can't assume foods are wholly safe until we know more," said Ellen Haas, director of the consumer division of the Community Nutrition Institute, a nonprofit citizens organization.

Problems with foods have ranged widely -- from botulism, a form of food poisoning that can be fatal, to concerns over the ingredients of additives. The addition of monosodium glutamate to some foods, particularly Chinese food, caused a stir when the substance was linked to chest pains. The removal of sodium chloride -- common table salt -- from two baby formulas made headlines when doctors found that infants taking the salt-free formulas had stopped growing.

But most of the food scares in recent years have been tied to cancer. They have included a diverse line of foods, such as soft drinks containing cyclamates, meat with DES residues, fish with kepone, chicken with PCB and strawberry ice cream with Red Dye No. 2.

Turner said that some risks in the food supply can be eliminated -- but not all of the risks. He said many veterans of the movement for food safety have concluded that the United States doesn't have the ability to eliminate all risks from food.

"There are some problems that are not amenable to technological solutions," Turner said. "For example, Vitamin D poses risks for some people . . . but the fact is that it is also essential. So we need the proper policy for the proper use."

What food policy will emerge from President-elect Ronald Reagan's conservative and antiregulatory government is uncertain, however. Turner contends that there are as many food purists in the political right as in the left.

But other consumer leaders are worried about the direction that the Reagan-controlled regulatory agencies and conservative members of Congress will go on food safety. "The issue is what level of protection should be provided consumers," said the Community Nutrition Institute's Ellen Haas. She predicted that food safety laws -- and the underlying question of how far government will go to enforce them in a time of economic hardship -- will be a major debate next year.

In many ways, preparation for that debate has been under way since the Great Cranberry Scare. A review of the major food safety controversies since then underscores the concerns of consumers, producers and regulators struggling to balance their special interests with the public good. Here is a summary of some of the most famous cases:

Botulism from smoked fish, vichyssoise soup and mushrooms.In 1963 seven people died in Tennessee after eating contaminated smoked fish. In 1971 a New York banker died after eating Bon Vivant vichyssoise. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seized the company's inventory of more than 1 million canned products in fear of an epidemic, and Bon Vivant promptly filed for bankruptcy. Five cans ultimately were found contaminated; the problem was traced to an error in setting the cooking timer, resulting in one lot of vichyssoise not being thoroughly sterilized. In 1973 five mushroom processors recalled their products due to botulin contamination. FDA ordered a nationwide examination of all canned mushrooms still in warehouses after surveys found that half of the mushroom-canning plants in the country had defective equipment or operating procedures.

Aflatoxin on peanuts, corn and grain. A carcinogen produced by mold that grows naturally on such products when they are not properly dried and stored after harvesting, aflatoxin was unknown until the early 1960s. In 1965 the FDA established a tolerance for peanuts of 30 parts aflatoxin per billion parts peanuts. The tolerance has since been reduced to 15 parts per billion for peanuts and other foods.

Cyclamates in foods and drinks. The artificial sweetener was banned In 1969 after two studies indicated it caused cancer in laboratory animals. Abbott Laboratories petitioned FDA in 1973, seeking an end to the ban, but finally abandoned the battle in September 1980.

DES, the common abbreviation for diethylstilbestrol, a hormone. DES was widely used a generation ago for pregnancy disorders. Some daughters of DES mothers have developed vaginal or cervical cancer and some sons, genital abnormalitites. In 1972, FDA banned the use of DES to fatten beef cattle because residues in meat can cause cancer. But industry blocked the ban with court actions and it didn't take effect until June 1979.

Bacon with nitrites, a preservative used to prevent botulism among other things. The bacon controversy was triggered by studies in the early 1970s showing that nitrosamines cause cancer in laboratory animals. When the bacon is fried, nitrosamines form as the nitrites combine with amines, a substance that is contained naturally in the bacon. Later studies indicated that nitrites also cause cancer in animals. But in August 1980, researchers concluded that there wasn't evidence to say that sodium nitrite causes cancer. The researchers did not address the issue of the nitrosamines formed when bacon is fried, however. Studies showing that the nitrosamines are carcinogens remain unchallenged.

Food colorings. Violet No. 1, used to stamp meat with the grade marks "choice" and "prime" and as a coloring agent in some beverages, baked goods, sherbet and candy, was banned in 1973 after two unpublished Japanese studies tied it to cancer rats. Three more colorings, all derived from coal tars, were banned in 1976 because of studies showing they were carcinogens. These colorings included Red No. 2, used in a wide variety of foods, from strawberry ice cream to chocolate cake mixes; Red No. 4, used mostly in maraschino cherries, and carbon black, commonly used in black licorice and jelly beans. Two other colorings, Red No. 40 and Yellow No. 5, are under review.

Kepone in fish. A highly toxic chemical, Kepone has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. In July 1976, Allied Chemical Co. was fined $13.24 million for polluting the James River in Virginia with Kepone. Last week, the Virginia Board of Health lifted most of its five-year-old ban on commerical fishing in the James River. But some top health officials still question the safety of fish from the river.

Saccharin. A ban on saccharin, also an artificial sweetner, was proposed in 1977 because of tests linking it to bladder cancer in laboratory animals. But the ban was never implemented because of a congressional moratorium. FDA still contends that saccharin is a "weak carcinogen" and advises against excessive use by anyone.

PCB, the common term for polychlorinated biphenyl. PCB contamination of some feed in a Billings, Mont., meat packing and animal feed farm in 1979 ultimately led to the destruction of 300,000 chickens, 18 million eggs and 75,000 frozen cakes baked with suspect eggs.

Infant baby formulas. In this most recent food scare, the removal of common table salt from two baby formulas has been blamed for stopping a baby's growth at a time of critical brain development. Some preliminary studies suggest that some babies may have suffered subtle retardation because of chloride deficiency.

Prior to 1959, government regulation of food safety focused largely on adulteration from bacterial sources. That reflected the legal limits of existing laws and the stage of technology. But during the 1950s, scientists began to learn more about chemicals and to research the impact of those chemicals on laboratory animals. At the same time, federal laws were enacted, expanding the government's power the same time, federal law were enacted, expanding the government's power over the way that chemicals were used in the food supply.

The best known and most controversial law to emerge was the Delaney clause, first passed in 1958, and named after its author, Rep. James J. Delaney (D-N.Y.). The Delaney clause automatically bans food additives if they are found to induce cancer in humans or in animals.

In recent years, the Delaney clause has become the buzzword embracing all of the statutes and regulations that government may use to ban carcinogens. It also has become the focus of attacks by those who don't think that results obtained by feeding laboratory rats should be used as the basis for a ban on additives to human food.