The Food Safety Council yesterday proposed an innovative system of "risk assessment" to measure the safety of American food from possible cancer-causing agents.

The proposal, aimed at preventing the bitter battles that have raged over nitrites, saccharin and other substances, was approved both by food industry and consumer groups. The council is a group financed by the food industry to bring industry and other interests together in a common approach to food safety.

"What we have tried to do, with some success, we think," is move away from confrontation toward "a more open process" of safety testing, said Adolph S. Clausi, a vice president of General Foods Corp. and chairman of the council's board of trustees.

The system will utilize a three- to four-year series of scientific laboratory and animal tests that questionable additives or components, both old and new, or foods containing questionable substances must pass. A substance like saccharin, for example, would be tested in human cells for adverse results that might lead to cancer or birth defects.

If these tests clearly show harmful effects, the substance might be declared unsafe without further testing. If the results are uncertain, there might be further laboratory tests and, ultimately, tests on animals.

It was approved by a 29-to-2 vote of the trustees, a body with about an equal number of industry and "public" representatives.

The public sector representatives include James Turner, one of the original "Nader's Raiders"; Dr. Marvin Schneiderman, a former National Cancer Institute official who has emphasized the dangers of cancer-causing substances in industry, and Dr. Johanna Dwyer, director of the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts University.

Turner's 1970 book, "The Chemical Feast," criticized the food industry and Food and Drug Administration for allowing dangerous substances to enter the food supply.

He said yesterday that he thinks the council has now "set out a set of general principles" that, if followed, should make the food supply as safe as possible.

That view is not unanimous among consumer advocates. Two consumer-oriented nutritional groups, the Community Nutrition Institute and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, did not participate in the council's efforts, despite invitations to do so, according to council officials.

One of the council's "no" votes came from Dr. Joseph Highland, a Princeton University biochemist who represented the Environmental Defense Fund. He said one of the "decision trees" or series of possible steps in the test system might let some potential cancer-causing substances slip by.

Turner said he agrees and believes there will be a change in the final report that will win Highland's approval.

In the last decade there have been battles over a host of food chemicals and additives: the nitrites in bacon and other preserved meats, caffeine in soft drinks, red dyes, sweeteners like saccharin and antibiotics and hormones added to animal feed that leave residues in the meat.

The food industry wants Congress to change or modify the food law known as the "Delaney clause." It requires a ban on any additive that causes cancers in man or test animals, no matter how infrequent the cancers or how otherwise valuable it is.

The Food Safety Council's test system would require a considered scientific judgment that a substance should have "no significant adverse effect."

Such judgments, often using mathematical models of probable effect, would have to be made repeatedly as a substance moved through the system, undergoing what might often be test after test for possible cancer-causing or genetic effects or effects on fetuses.

"At many points," Clausi said, there would be invitations for public participation and comment.