A White House dispute with the food industry over meat and grocery prices intensified yesterday as the two sides traded blows over President Carter's allegations that food processors and grocers were "profiting excessively."
After Tuesday's announcement that Carter will call industry leaders to a White House jawboning session, the Council on Wage and Price Stability issued a report charging that "increases in marketing margins" were now "the basic source of higher food prices."
Meanwhile, industry groups challenged the agency's assertions, contending the council's figures did not take account of higher trucking and energy costs of food sellers or allow enough time for farm-price declines to filter through.
Richard Lyng, president of the American Meat Institute, predicted that with farm prices already on the decline, it would be only a matter of days before retail prices followed through - implying that Carter's move was political.
Lyng charged in an interview that "those people in the White House are simply anticipating what consumer prices will do anyway. They want their president to look good, so they've decided to "jawbone" what is likely to happen anyway."
The wage-price council declined yesterday to say when the meeting with food industry leaders would take place. However, some officials indicated yesterday that invitations had gone out for a session in the cabinet room at 3 p.m. Monday.
The administration's latest campaign won praise from some consumer groups. Ellen Haas, head of the food task force of Consumers Opposed to Inflation in the Necessities, said the wage-price council's charges were justified by the figures.
Haas criticized the White House, however, for failing to move aggressively enough against what she called "the main problem" that is keeping food prices high: the absence of sufficient competition in some cities.
She also chided the agency for refusing to make bublic the list of supermarkets and packing firms it says may not be complying with the guidelines. The council says it has found 37 of these firms, but will not name any of them.
The major thrust of the wage-price council's report was that food processors and retailers had not moved rapidly enough to lower their prices in the wake of the past few months' decline in farm prices - a lag that it said is keeping prices high.
The agency said that while farm prices dipped 2.2 percent in June - the latest month for which such figures are available - retail prices rose 0.3 percent. It said the "spread" between farm and retail food prices rose 1.9 percent.
However, food industry spokesmen contended there simply has not been enough time for the farm-price declines to show up at the wholesale and retail levels, and argued that higher transportation and energy costs would cut into this response.
George Koch, president of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said the council's comparisons amounted $&(WORD ILLEGIBLE $&)See ECONOMY, C5, Col. 6> $&(WORD ILLEGIBLE $&)ECONOMY, From C1> to only "a snapshot" at a single point in time that did not show longer-term trends.
Koch said, "The only way you could get retail prices to match the decline in farm prices would be if everything else stayed the same." But, he said, utilities, fuel, labor and coal costs of retailers have skyrocketed during the period.
Meanwhile in Chicago, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Lane Kirkland said he expects Congress to become more receptive to the idea of mandatory wage-price controls as the election draws closer.