If there are "lite" beer and "lite" salad dressing and "lite" canned fruit chunks, isn't "lite" beef just around the corner?

Maybe. Maybe not. "Lite" beef by any other name might sell a little better--especially if it's called Choice, a name that's easily recognized by American consumer.

Beef is graded--and named--according to the amount of marbling (fat distributed throughout the muscle) and the age of the carcass--both thought to affect tenderness. Young, well-marbled beef traditionally has been considered more tender than lean meat from older cows.

Some cattle breeders think that recent research disproves this rule of thumb. They maintain that improved breeding techniques yield beef with less marbling that's just as tender as the heavily marbled beef of the past, and they've asked the USDA to change the rules to allow for this. They propose, for instance, that Choice be an enlarged category that includes much of the beef now defined as Good. They maintain it is Choice quality.

The USDA, as it is required to do, issued a public proposal suggesting such a change. The department received thousands of responses to the proposal, most of them negative.

Consumers don't like the idea of paying Choice prices for beef that may not be Choice quality. They've told the USDA that traditional standards--and names--should still apply to beef. If the cattle breeders want to market a new product with less marbling, say consumers, let them call it something different--maybe Choice Lite. In any case, many consumer groups don't think that old names should define new standards.

Because of this controversy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is scheduling public meetings to review those standards, which determine the quality and price of beef in the grocery store. On Jan. 17 and 18, USDA officials will meet at the Twin Bridges Marriott in Arlington with representatives of the beef industry and consumers to discuss the future of beef grades.

Consumers interested in beef grading are invited to attend. For further information, call the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, 447-4727, or write AMS, Room 2-M, 14th and Independence streets SW, Washington, D.C. 20250.