Action by the Justice Department's antitrust division has triggered a global furor in the sugar industry, frustrated customs officials and jeopardized the delicate pricing mechanism of the International Sugar Agreement.

The cause is a civil antitrust suit brought by the department in October against the New York Coffee Sugar exchange and its two committees which set the daily value - or spot price - or raw sugar.

Following a routine examination of the way prices for commodities such as cocoa, wheat, corn and soybeans are determined by U.S. industry, Justice attorneys charged the exchange with price fixing. The court papers allege that price committees set the daily values "arbitrarily," without historical or technical bases.

Exchange officials said they "tried to tell" Justice lawyers that the New York spot prices are widely used by companies in standard contracts for the purchase and sale of sugar. More importantly, the New York spots - as well as those set by a trade committee in London - are the reference prices cited in the International Sugar Agreement. Last year, for the first time in history, the United States participated in the ISA negotiations and is a party to the agreement.

Millions of dollars of contracts for raw and refined cane sugar have had to be renegotiated since publication of the "spot," or cash quotes, was halted in November in response to the lawsuit, industry sources report.

The basis price for sugar stowed at Caribbean ports - the world price - now is the official London daily price, or LDP, which is set by a committee of three U.K. merchant houses. The price is adjusted daily to take into account the fluctuation of the British pound. The domestic price - the value of sugar at U.S. ports, duty pacd - now is negotiated on a contracty-contract basis, sources said.

"It seems that it doesn't matter to Justice that the price of sugar is set by a committee as long as the committee isn't in the United States," one executive of a major U.S. refinery said bitterly.

The committees of five members each had set the world and domestic cash prices. The world price committee included five executives of raw sugar merchant firms in the United States. The domestic committee was made up of executives of two U.S. refineries and three merchant houses.

The court papers allege that since 1979, one of the two refinery representatives on the domestic price committee has been an executive of Amstar Corp., the largest sugar refiner in the United States. Calls to Amstar officials last week and yesterday were not returned.

Although sugar futures contracts, are traded, but no months in between and London, the gap in the delivery months listed for trading makes it impossible for the merchants and refiners to use the futures prices as a basis for the physical commodity price. At one point, for instance, the gap is five months - October and March contracts are traded, but no moths in between.

A former member of the New York world price committee explained the manner in which the daily price traditionally was set. "We follow the rules of the exchange, which say we adjust the daily price in relation to what daily transactions were completed in the cash market as well as the varying prices of sugar in the futures market. The price is a reference point, that's all," he explained. "Certainly, merchants and refiners negotiate their own purchases and sales at whatever prices they're able to."

A typical contract to import sugar into the United States might have set the price at the value of the domestic spot price on the date of delivery at a U.S. port plus 800 points - which would translate as the spot price plus 8 cents a pound.

Since the suspension of the cash quotes, hundreds of contracts carrying such price, clauses have had to be reneogitated, either on the basis of the London daily price or hard cash, according to refinery sources.

The ISA clause on pricing gives both the New York and the London spot quotes as the basis for sales made under its terms. Since the suspension, the London price has been the only reference value.

Justice lawyers said they were unaware of the complexities of the sugar trade when the filed their antitrust suit. A department official involved in the case said after the lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, "We got a lot of letters telling us nobody could buy or sell sugar because of the suit."

Since November, several "informal meetings" have been held with representatives of the sugar industry, the exchange, the State Department, the Agriculture Department, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Justice to try to resolve the problem, the Justice official said.

Economists from three of the agencies are attempting to devise a plan for determining a daily price on an historical or technical basis that would not be accompanied by the antitrust problems of the arbitrary "fixing" of prices.