In an effort to benefit the health of consumers and to create a marketing incentive for cattle producers, the advocacy group Public Voice for Food & Health Policy petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday to rename the leanest grade of beef.

The three grades of beef -- prime, choice and good -- are based on the amount of marbling, or fat, in the animal. Prime carcasses have the most fat and calories, good the least. Producers who raise cattle that are higher in fat and calories are able to get more money for their meat -- it costs you more to buy a prime sirloin in the supermarket than it does to purchase a choice cut.

Yet unlike federal meat inspection, which is mandatory to ensure the wholesomeness of meat, grading is not. So suppliers, who must pay the government to have their meat graded, rarely pay to have "good" graded because it is less marketable, according to Public Voice. About 65 percent of beef is federally graded and most of that -- about 93 percent -- is graded choice.

"The problem is, this system has nothing to do with health or nutrition," charged Ellen Haas, executive director of the group. The petition, which was signed by a dozen food, health and consumer organizations, including the American Heart Assocation and the American Cancer Society, asks the department to change the name "good" to "select."

The group pointed to the 1986 National Consumer Retail Beef Study conducted by the Texas A&M University System, which monitored consumer acceptability of beef marked "choice" and "select." The survey found that consumers cited "taste" and "texture" as positive attributes of the choice grade and "leanness" as a positive attribute of the select grade, leading to the conclusion that there is "clearly room for more than one quality grade in the marketplace."

The American Meat Institute, while supporting Public Voice's objective of giving the leaner grade of beef a more positive image, said in an interim statement that it plans to consult with producers, retailers and its beef committee to determine if "select" would be the best term to communicate the product's attributes to consumers. "Perhaps the most prudent route would be to conduct some research to determine consumer perception of 'select' and the image it promotes," the statement said.

Locally, at least some supermarkets did not support Public Voice's proposal. Many supermarkets buy ungraded beef and attach their own house names to it. These names do not have to conform to any federal standards or classifications. Yet because it is ungraded, supermarkets are also able to sell it for less money.

Eileen Katz, manager of consumer affairs at Giant Food, said that the company's house brand meat, called Giant Lean, would have been graded "good" if it had been graded. Katz said that it is "such a successful program" (55 percent of all Giant's meat sales are Lean), that they would not be interested in selling select graded meat, which would cost both the store and consumers more money.

Larry Johnson, spokesman for Safeway, said that up to 50 percent of Safeway's Quality house brand meat would have been graded choice if it had been graded. Johnson, who said that 70 to 75 percent of the chain's sales in this area are in the house brand meat, added that it has "no intention to change" its policy.