When an American company tried to market tomato paste in the Middle East recently, it ran into a problem; in Arabic, tomato paste translatesinto "tomatoe glue. A French firm trying to sell pate to a Baltimore importer experienced a similar hitch; in English, its brand name, "Tartex," sounded "like shoe polish" to Castle Foods president Eli W. Schlossberg.

Marketing food products internationally presents a host of difficulties, sometimes the least of which is taste. Sure, Del Monte sells banana ketchup in the Phillipines; the biggest selling flavor of Meadow Gold ice cream in Indonesia is Sweet Corn; and Kool-Aid in Latin America is even sweeter than it is in this country. World taste preferences are often easy to identify.

Names, labels, packages and advertisements create a different set of problems, however. Marketers must grasp the cultural nuances of the individual country -- how the population will use the food product, what stimuli the users are exposed to, the linguistics of it all -- without offending or misinterpreting their audience.

That's not to mention the myriad of government regulations that differ from one country to the next. There is considerable global variation, for instance, in food additives approved for use, as well as tolerance levels for pesticide residues.

There are also religious considerations. When exporting beef or poultry to a Moslem country, for example, the animal must be killed in the "halal" method. In the United States, there are 12 Islamic centers that slaughter and certify meat for such export, according to John Riesz of the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service.

Among all the variables, "every company has a few bloopers," says Brian Soddy, vice president of international food marketing for Beatrice Foods. Beatrice's "blooper," explained Soddy, occurred when the company tried to market a snack product -- already sold in Latin America -- in Brazil. When translated into Portuguese, the snack's name meant "body odor."

The marketer's dilemma frequently is fueled by the "big argument going on in the world" when it comes to international sales, says Sam Thurm, president of the Association of National Advertisers.

One school of thought, says Thurm, is that a product be marketed the same around the world (a Coke or Pepsi, for instance, is a Coke or Pepsi, whether in Barcelona or Budapest). The other, says Thurm, is that a company tailor a product to the individual country -- perhaps with a different taste, name, advertising campaign, label or package.

Here, then, are examples of what can happen when companies subscribe to the second school: Name That Food

"Names mean a lot in America," says Castle Foods' Schlossberg. Ditto in Japan, says Suzanne Leff, vice president of Interbrand Corp., a New York-based company that develops brand names and strategies for international businesses.

According to Leff, the Japanese "love" English words and as a result, frequently name Japanese-made products in English. As most anyone who has ever tried to follow the directions to a Japanese calculator would agree, the problem is that sometimes "they the Japanese don't get them exactly right," says Leff.

Leff cited some Japanese products: A soup mix called "Kitchy." A candy named "Carap." A Gatorade-type drink called "Pocari Sweat." "Creap," a non-dairy creamer. "Crunky," a chocolate bar, and chocolate in a Band-Aid style box called "Hand-Maid Queer Aids."

Food companies are sometimes forced to give identical products different names, says Leff.

Tang is Tang, except in Germany, where it is "Cefrisch," because another product in that country has already claimed the name Tang, says General Foods spokesman John Manfredi.

Maxwell House is called simply "Maxwell" in France and Japan, says Manfredi, because the "House" is confusing to those consumers. (The "House" as it turns out, may be unfamiliar even to American consumers. It stands for the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., where President Theodore Roosevelt drank the drink and coined the phrase "good to the last drop.")

And Diet Coke is called Coca-Cola Light in all non-English speaking countries, according to a Coke spokesman, because the word "diet" in other languages has a medicinal connotation which would legally require that the soft drink be sold only in pharmacies.

Identical foods are known by different names in many countries, and international marketers must keep track of that as well. England's Carr's Wheatmeal Biscuits were changed to Whole Wheat in this country because Americans are unfamiliar with the term wheatmeal, and according to Schlossberg, the term "bisque" doesn't go over well with Americans who would rather see the word "soup" on the label of imported as well as domestic goods. Package It, Label It

A lot of foreign exporters don't understand how package-conscious American consumers are, says Castle Foods' Schlossberg. Americans like cans "shiny and beautiful," he says, and won't go for packaging they're not used to.

He has decided not to import some products because he knows the packaging will be rejected, and he knows that such popular overseas products as tomato paste in tubes ("what could be better?" says Schlossberg; you don't have to throw away a can with unused tomato paste) will be slow to gain acceptance here. A Scottish product that Schlossberg recently imported -- make-your-own marmalade -- didn't do well, he figures, because Americans don't "like to mess around with things that aren't already made."

Sometimes American companies will stick to their domestic packaging concept when selling abroad because they feel the American look will sell the product. In Japan, Borden sells its Lady Borden ice cream and Borden cheese "deliberately packaged" and labeled in English -- just like they are in the U.S., according to company spokesman James McCrory.

Likewise, General Foods sells a chewing gum in France called "Hollywood" with an accompanying "Pepsi-generation" type ad campaign that pictures teen-agers riding bikes on the beach, says the company's spokesman.

But American companies know that package sizes or labels must be adapted in many countries to suit the needs of that particular culture. In Mexico, for example, Campbell's sells soup in cans large enough to serve four or five, according to company spokesman Herb Baum, because families in that country are generally larger. And in England, where consumers are more acquainted with ready-to-serve soups, Campbell's puts "one can makes two" on its condensed soup labels to ensure that shoppers understand how to use it.

Then there's the whole detailed area of food laws regarding labeling and packaging. In the U.S., for example, labels of imported products must concur with domestic ones, with specific lettering sizes and certain information on the "principal display panel." And although most of the rest of the world is on the metric system, canned or packaged foods imported to this country must bear weights and measures in pounds and ounces. (This creates problems for importers who must then reject foods on the basis of insufficient labeling, as well as for foreign companies who may not have the money or inclination to invest in relabeling.)

When it comes to expiration dates, too, labels vary. Because the heat shortens shelf life, expiration dates for food products being shipped to countries such as Saudi Arabia are generally sooner. According to the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, merchants importing foods to Arabian countries must be extremely careful to meet expiration date requirements as Arabian authorities closely adhere to those laws.

Irene Agnew of Berlitz/Agnew Tech Tran, a company that specializes in foreign language translations, says she recently worked on a project for a client selling to Saudi Arabia who wanted to give "an added display of cultural awareness" by using the lunar calendar for the expiration date, alongside the date of the solar calendar.

Agnew says she did a lot of research to find the conversion, and after making a rather convoluted mistake, ended up with a client "screaming" about a $300,000 shipment of soup cans "ready to take a swim in the Red Sea." The Ad Game

It may be a generalization, says Manfredi of General Foods, but in France, advertising has to seduce, and in Germany, it should be blunt.

Yet, advertisers on foreign turf must also be careful not to offend. According to Berlitz, an advertiser selling refrigerators in Arabia made a crucial mistake. The photo of the refrigerator in the ad showed the door ajar with several food items inside. Among the foods was a smoked ham, and since Arabs don't eat pork, the ad did not produce the results hoped for by the advertiser, says Berlitz.

Advertisers must also be careful that the food advertised is shown according to the way the culture eats it. According to Caroline Fee, spokeswoman from Nabisco, she has heard a story about an advertisement for Ritz crackers in Japan. The Japanese, says Fee, apparently don't put anything on their crackers, so a promotion for them topped with cheese or peanut butter was deemed inappropriate. Instead, says Fee, the ad pictured two Ritz crackers on top of each other.

Advertisers also must keep abreast of domestic trends. The United States is the only country where Campbell's runs its "Soup is Good Food" ad campaign because, according to company spokesman Herb Baum, "nutrition is a much bigger item in this country" than in most countries abroad. (The campaign has been deemed misleading by critics and the N.Y. State Attorney General's office, which has said that the ads fail to point out the soup's high sodium content.)

And although Pepsi Co. maintains an "overall thematic campaign" around the globe for its soft drink (the most recent: "Pepsi taste goes over the top" which features gymnasts, horse riders and dancers -- visually universal, according to a company spokesperson), Michael Jackson commercials for the soft drink were run strictly in the U.S.

Conversely, in England, where ground coffee is a relatively new product (as opposed to instant and freeze dried), General Foods advertises Maxwell House by showing a woman wine writer analyzing a cup of coffee as one would a glass of wine. According to Manfredi, the analogy is trying to show the British that, like drinking wine, there is a certain sophistication to drinking ground coffee and an accompanying flavor that warrants using wine jargon. Manfredi added that he doubts such an ad would "go over" in the U.S.

Cultural differences span products beyond food, of course, and the problems can be equally troublesome. Take the introduction of the Chevrolet's "Nova" in Spanish-speaking countries. Nova, in Spanish, means "no go."