For 51 years, Giant Foods Inc. has been one of the Washington area's most notable purveyors of food and assorted sundries.

Now the area's No. 1 grocery chain is trying to expand far beyond Washington, to places as distant as Singapore, Khartoum and Punta Arenas, Chile -- the southernmost city in the world.

Since 1980, Giant has been actively trying to sell its products -- primarily its Giant-label brands -- overseas. Today, it has more than two dozen foreign clients who rely on Giant for a variety of goods, from small amounts of corn or paper plates to shipments that would stock an entire store.

The overseas operation is small compared to the rest of Giant, whose 22,000 employes rang up $2.5 billion of sales last year: The entire export division is run by Jose Catita, a multilinguist who is Giant's director of international trade. In addition to the export operation, Catita also handles negotiations for the products Giant imports to sell under its own label, such as Spanish olives and Portugese sardines.

Catita declined to say how large the export operations are in terms of sales or profits, saying, "It's shown to be an interesting business for the company."

But industry officials believe the export business -- which is relatively small in terms of sales -- is probably a very profitable one, since it costs Giant very little to operate.

Only a handful of supermarket chains across the nation have similar export programs, according to industry observers. "Until recently, American retailers have not been very aggressive" about selling their products overseas, said Brian Sharoff, president of the Private Label Manufacturers Association.

For one thing, "European retailers have been very aggressive on their own," and it has been hard for American companies to fight for shelf space in European stores, Sharoff said.

In addition, said Philip Fitzell, executive editor of Private Label magazine, "the U.S. market has been so rich that most retailers have all they can handle here."

That is one reason why Supermarkets General Corp., owner of several grocery chains in the Mid-Atlantic states, has turned down numerous requests to export its goods. "We feel our primary role is narrowly defined as a retailer," said Bob Wunderle, a spokesman for the Woodbridge, N.J.-based Supermarkets General. "We have not wanted to get into the business of wholesaling, which is what exporting is." Additionally, he said, "It is difficult enough to find a high-quality supply" for canned fruits and vegetables for the U.S. market, let alone foreign markets.

Kroger Co., the large Cincinnati-based supermarket chain, does have an export program, through a one-man international operation similar to Giant's. Kroger also ships a wide array of products, mostly to Asia and the Middle East. Kroger also has an agreement to supply Daiei, one of Japan's largest supermarket chains.

"Our international department got going in the early 1980s, after we noticed that the demand for our private label and generic products had lost its luster," said Paul Bernish, a Kroger spokesman. "As the nation recovered from an economic downturn, fewer consumers went for private brands. Rather than close our manufacturing plants {that were making the private-label products}, we decided to develop our export capacity."

Safeway Stores Inc., which has a licensing arrangement with an agent to stock stores in four Middle Eastern countries, also has stepped up its export operations in recent years. "In 1979, we started a lot of export agreements," concentrating on the Pacific Rim because of its proximity to Safeway's headquarters in Oakland, Calif., said Felicia del Campo, a Safeway spokeswoman.

Like Giant, both Kroger and Safeway decline to give specific financial statistics on the export business, but all say it is small compared to the rest of their operations.

Giant started its export operations seven years ago, with the hiring of Catita, a Portugese native who had been president of a manufacturing company that had been supplying Giant with imported products.

"At the time we started it, we felt that we could offer ourselves two things," said M. Davis Herriman Jr., Giant's vice president for grocery operations. "The dollar was relatively high then, and we felt we would be in a good position to export merchandise when it went down. And when it went up, we would be in a better position to import. Additionally, we wanted to develop contacts with other retailers around the world so we could not only sell but could also directly buy products {to import to the United States} without having to go through a middleman."

Catita -- who speaks five languages fluently and one (German) semi-fluently -- used former business contacts to start the export business and developed other contacts at food fairs.

Now, Giant's export business has grown to a point where it equals -- in time and dollar volume -- the chain's import business. Its shipments go to the Caribbean, Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia, including Beijing.

Additionally, Giant has developed a large following among State Department employes who are transferred abroad. On relatively short notice, Giant will fill an order worth thousands of dollars for overseas diplomats who are unable to buy some of the food products or paper goods they are accustomed to using in the United States.

"We ship everything anyone asks for, but 95 percent of our products are Giant-brand products," Catita said.

At times, Giant has declined to ship goods because of regulations in some nations that make exporting too onerous and costly.

"We suffer several frustrations in dealing with some countries," Catita said. Some, for instance, require labels in the local language, rather than stickers that can be made and placed over the original label. "That's difficult for us," Catita said. "We do it when quantities are big enough" to justify the effort.

The most popular product around the world, he said, appears to be corn. "It's a famous American product that is so important for our exports," Catita said.