A new federal policy unveiled yesterday requiring photo identification cards for food stamp recipients in 17 major U.S. cities as a safeguard against fraud has been in effect in Washington for the last nine years.

D.C. Department of Human Services officials said yesterday that the city's policy, adopted in July 1972, has met with little opposition from recipients and, in many cases, has prevented unqualified persons from acquiring food stamps. Recipients are required to present special photo ID cards when picking up stamps.

"We feel that over the years it has reduced the possibility of fraud," said Alice Ricci, the department's acting deputy administrator for income maintenance. "Also, our recipients are really glad to have some form of positive identification, for fast cash checking, because they often don't have driver's licenses."

But the department's chief of inspection and compliance said the policy has been of little use in coping with the most prevalent form of fraud: recipients falsely claiming to have lost their food stamps or the authorization card they need to acquire stamps.

"That's the biggest problem right now," said Grady Williams, the compliance official.

Williams added, however, that another recent change in the federal law should make it easier to convict food stamp cheats in federal court or before local hearing officers. Authorities must now prove only misrepresentation by the suspect, rather than willful fraud, Williams said.

"In these kinds of cases, judges are sympathetic to the recipients," Williams said. "You need an ironclad case to win."

In the two years before the law change, Williams' office referred 100 cases of alleged misuse of the food stamp program but obtained only one conviction.

In that case, a Washington woman was given a one-year suspended sentence for having unlawfully obtained $18,000 in food stamps, according to Williams.

Nationally, more than 750 persons were indicted in fiscal 1981 on charges of food stamp fraud, according to L.L. Free, an official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General. Agriculture Department investigations have led to about 2,200 indictments since 1975, Free said, with "a conviction rate running at about 90 percent."

Free said that the new federal regulation requiring food stamp recipients to carry photo ID cards "is likely to lessen the possibility of imposters obtaining food stamps."

The regulation will require 17 cities, including Washington, that have 100,000 or more residents receiving food stamps, to issue the identification cards by Nov. 1, 1982. Qualified recipients then would have to display the cards when they picked up stamps at local banks, credit unions and other certified vendors.

The Agriculture Department rejected a proposal, backed by some states, to require recipients also to show their ID cards at supermarkets when buying food with stamps.

Williams said yesterday that he doubted such a requirement would do much to reduce abuses in the food stamp program.

"Besides, I don't know to what extent you could get stores to cooperate with that," he said. "I suspect that they would balk at it."

About 43,000 Washington households (or roughly 137,600 people) qualify for federal food stamps, according to city human services officials. All but about 1,500 of those households also receive public assistance and Medicaid.

D.C. City Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), chairman of the Human Services Committee, said yesterday she saw nothing wrong with requiring recipients to carry ID cards "if it's going to tighten up" practices in the food stamp program.