Responding to mounting consumer pressures to halt inflation, the White House is considering a series of controversial measures -- including a further relaxation of meat import quotas -- to help slow rising food prices.
Although planners stressed privately that no decisions have been made yet; the measures include lifting quotas on beef imports, cracking down on price-influencing tactics of milk cooperatives and spurring more soybean planting.
Strategists say some actions could come as early as two weeks from now.
Economists conceded that none of the actions now being weighed is likely to have a dramatic impact. But the White House is under pressure to take an activist stance on inflation in the face of pending Teamsters negotiations that could break President Carter's pay standards and influence other contract negotiations this year.
However, the actions could embroil the administration in political controversy. After Carter approved a similar move on beef imports last year, cattlemen charged that he had wreaked havoc in domestic markets.
The administration's Council on Wage and Price Stability predicted yesterday that food prices will continue to rise sharply through the remainder of this month, and energy prices won't begin to taper off until the end of the year.
The agency also charged that middlemem have unjustifiably widened their share of the consumer food dollar over the past two years, boosting their margins sharply in excess of their own cost increases.
It said the spread between farm prices and retail food prices has almost quadrupled since 1976, soaring by 9.7 percent in 1978, up from a 4.4 percent rise in 1977 and 2.6 percent in 1976.
Neither farm prices nor energy prices are included under the wageprice guidelines, but the White House is keeping tabs on processors' profit margins. The council said last Sunday it is probing the meat-packing industry.
Meanwhile, anti-inflation chief Alfred E. Kahn disclosed that the administration has finished drafting price guidelines for electric utilities and will publish them formally within a few days.
Sources said the standards will ask power companies to limit their gross margins to a rise of 6.5 percent, with provision for exceptions in cases where utilities need extra rate increases to cover construction or new equipment.
Kahn said the standards will be administered by state public utility commissions. The wage-price chief called the new guidelines "tight," but officials said they had no firm estimate of the standards' impact.
The developments came as, separately, the House Banking Committee approved legislation that would extend the life of the wage-price council for another two years and increase its staff to 233 persons from an estimated 130 now.
The move, on a 29-to-10 vote, sends the measure to the House floor in time for a vote later this month. The Senate Banking Committee approved a similar bill last week, but provided for only a one-year extension.
The steps the White House is considering to slow food prices include:
A relaxation of beef-import quotas, designed to alleviate domestic shortages, which are driving prices up sharply. Carter took a similar step in the spring of 1978.
A move to thwart suspected efforts by some milk cooperatives to maintain artificially high prices, by cracking down on the administration of a special antitrust exemption covering the industry.
Incentives to encourage farmers to plant more soybeans, by allowing them to use land now kept barren under the feed grain and wheat set-aside programs. Planners fear soybean supplies may be tight in the coming year.
Officials cautioned that the impact of these actions may be quite limited. Even if Carter lifts quotas on imported beef, analysts say other nations do not have enough supplies on hand to make much difference in domestic markets.
The White House also reported yesterday it has approved three requests by companies for exemptions from its price standards, and 21 exceptions involving its wage guidelines.
Kahn said of 54 firms in a dozen key industries that the council is monitoring, officials have certified that 33 are complying with the guidelines and are still looking into the pricing policies of the 21 others.