To many Americans, one of the most painful aspects of the current inflation surge has been the staggering rise in meat prices.

Government figures show beef prices have risen at a 70 percent annaul rate during the past three months. And most analysts say there's little hope for relief.

But while ordinary shoppers are doling out more and more at the supermarket, at least one American consumer is paying less for meat now than he did a year ago:

Uncle Sam.

It's not that the government is getting a special deal on beef, mind you.

While Washington's super-large grocery basket does entitle the government to a volume discount in most places, even discount prices are going up sharply.

It's just that Uncle Sam is a bit less finicky than he was a year ago, and he's finding that's saving several million dollars.

Under a new program, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy has prodded the Pentagon into redrafting specifications for meat and other products so they don't cost as much to provide.

In the case of beef, for example, the Army no longer insists on militarily uniform cuts that guarantee each dogface precisely the same amount of beef.

It simply buys the beef as it's sold commercially. If someone's frozen hamburger is smaller, the odds are he's unlikely to complain.

The change has affected government purchases of other items as well, from boxer shorts, towels and bed sheets to soy sauce, X-ray film and dozens of other products.

The shift already has saved the government more than $12 million-and that's just in Pentagon purchases alone.

Lester A. Fettig, administrator of the federal procurement office, says his agency hopes to redraft many of the government's 45,000 specs to make similar changes.

Essentially, what officials have done is to alter two longstanding-and expensive-government buying habits:

Under traditional practice, the government writes detailed specifications for all items it wants to buy. When the products are delivered, it stores them in warehouses.

The problem is, oftentimes the specs are so rigid that what the government ends up buying costs more than a comparable commerical product.

And in some cases, specifications have been written to guarantee a contract for a specific manufacturer. Naturally, the supplier can demand whatever price he wants.

What policymakers are trying to do is rewrite the specifications to give the government a choice of several suppliers on each item and permit cheaper buying right off the shelf.

At the same time, they're hoping to cut down on unnecessary warehousing costs by having the products delivered directly to the user, through commerical channels.

The experiments have been visibly successful.

Within two months after the change was made in meat-buying practices, the Defense Department was able to slice its beef bill to $1.29 a pound, from $1.42 before.

Fish prices fell to 85 cents a pound, from $1.85 before.

But it wasn't without some bureaucratic beefing:

Fettig recalls that the Army objected to turning to non-uniform cuts, on grounds that there might be "fights in the mess halls" if someone got an outsized portion.

Now, boxer shorts are something else. . .