Federal meat inspectors who now uphold federal health standards by poking and sniffing products as they come off packing plant assembly lines, may soon switch to laboratory tests and paperwork to ensure that meat is safe to eat.

Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Carol Tucker Foreman yesterday proposed a new "voluntary quality control program" that would make meat and poultry processors responsible for seeing that their products meet federal standards.

The proposal represents the most fundamental change in federal food safety rules since 1907, when Congress passed the first Clean Meat Act in response to "The Jungle," Upton Sinclair's muckraking attack on filthy packing plants in Chicago.

The Chicago plants have all been torn down, victims of a revolution in meat processing, but the federal inspection system works pretty much the way it has for 70 years, USDA officials said.

Under the new proposal, Foreman said, inspectors will be able to spend more time checking contemporary health hazards, like chemical residues in meat, and less time looking for diseases that have largely been eliminated by modern agriculture.

Promoted by the Carter administration in the name of deregulation, the new meat inspection plan is also aimed at reducing the Department of Agriculture's inspection bill, which, Foreman said, now totals $267 million a year and will cost $380 million by 1985.

The USDA proposal would allow meat processors to voluntarily substitute the new quality control system for conventional meat inspection. Plants that adopt the system would be able to display a new "USDA. approved quality control" seal along with the standard government inspection sticker on their products.

Only the meat and poultry processors with a record of meeting USDA, sanitation and quality standards will be allowed to participate in the voluntary program, Foreman said. If the voluntary plan is successful in reducing inspection costs and improving food quality levels, it will be made mandatory, she added.

The new inspection procedures do not apply to beef and pork slaughter houses, but cover chicken packers and plants that process beef and pork products ranging from hot dogs and soups to pot pies and frozen pizzas.

Tucker said inspectors who now can shut down a packing plant if they find filthy meat or substandard products will still have that authority.

The agency has the power to recall meat products that carry the USDA seal but fail to meet federal standards and has asked Congress for authority to find processors who falsify quality control data or try to slip contaminated meat past inspectors.

The Agriculture Department should get that authority before it implements the new program, urged Tom Smith, a staff member of the Community Nutrition Institute, one of several consumer groups following the bill.