Last year's alar pesticide scare brought the issue of food safety to the attention of consumers nationwide, but left them with the wrong ideas of what the biggest food safety hazards really are, said an Agriculture Department official.

"Researchers and consumers are finding themselves in opposite corners when it comes to prioritizing food safety problems," Anne Chadwick, director of USDA's Office of Consumer Affairs, said at the Food Marketing Institute's supermarket industry convention here.Ms. Chadwick said educating the consumer about food safety issues was one of the biggest challenges facing the food industry as it enters what she called "The nervous '90s."

She said consumers ranked environmental factors as the leading cause of food safety problems, while scientists placed those concerns third on their list of hazards.

Microbiological contamination was ranked by researchers as the leading threat to food safety, followed by the prevalence of processed foods with low nutritional content.

Most microbiological contamination occurs in the handling of food, rather than its manufacturing and processing, researchers said.

"It's hard for consumers to admit that they may be part of the problem," said Amy Barr, director of the Good Housekeeping Institute. "But so much contamination occurs in the home after the food leaves the store."

Ms. Barr said today's consumers wanted it all - convenience without sacrificing freshness and preservative-free food that doesn't have to be consumed immediately.

She added that one of the respondents to a Good Housekeeping survey summed up consumer attitudes when she said, "I don't want things in my stuff."

Ms. Chadwick said part of that consumer hysteria was reflected in Congress' reluctance to modify the Delaney clause, which bars any pesticide residue in processed food if that pesticide has been identified as a carcinogen.

She said the clause should be changed to identify minimum allowable levels of carcinogens in food because researchers are able to detect more minuscule levels of carcinogens now than they could when the clause was enacted 30 years ago.

"When the Delaney clause was adopted, our ability to detect the presence of carcinogenic substances was clumsy at best," she said. "In other words, if you found it, you could bet that there was a lot there to find."

More carcinogens naturally occur in food than are put there by pesticides or processing, she said.

Consumers have been trained that the words "Chemical," "Preservative," ''Red meat" and "Carcinogens" are bad, Ms. Barr said.