D.C. police arrested a 26-year-old man yesterday after he allegedly tried to insert needles into packages of sausage and butter at a Capitol Hill Safeway store. The arrest came after Saturday's disclosure that police were investigating 23 similar incidents in recent weeks at Safeway and Giant supermarkets throughout the city.

The suspect was identified by police as Grant Day, 26, of 1010 North Capitol St., which is the address of a work-release center run by the D.C. Department of Corrections. An employe at the center said he could not confirm if Day was a resident.

Police said Day was arrested at about noon yesterday after a woman customer reported observing a man tampering with food at the Safeway at 228 7th St. SE, across from Eastern Market.

The customer notified a Safeway cashier, who in turn notified police. When officer Edwin Jones of the First District arrived, he was told that the suspect had left the store heading south toward Pennsylvania Avenue. The officer arrested Day at 8th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE a few minutes later, according to a police spokesman.

Day was charged with destruction of property after what police said was a lengthy search for a charge to fit the suspected crime. "It's quite an unusual thing," said a detective assigned to the case, adding that the U.S. Attorney's office might amend the charge at today's arraignment.

Day has not been charged in connection with any of the previous incidents.

Although police had set up a special investigation of the incidents police spokesman credited yesterday's arrest to a customer's vigilance. "This is a graphic example of where you couldn't possibly have enough police officers to watch all of the aisles in all of the Safeways and Giants in Washington," said the spokesman.

The first of the needle incidents occurred on Feb. 17, police said, at a Safeway in Anacostia. Between then and this weekend, there were a total of 23 such incidents, in which employees or customers discovered needles and other objects inserted into meat, bread, margarine and other products. No injuries resulted from any of the incidents, police said.

Both Safeway and Giant undertook special security precautions after being alerted to the problem. Giant said it was using electric equipment to search packages for contaminants.

Most of the incidents involved heavy duty sewing needles about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long, according to Safeway and Giant spokespersons. The needles were punched into packages of food through plastic wrappers. "They were invisible," said Tony Statom, a public relations representative for Safeway, "but they were so long you could hardly miss them once you opened the package up . . . It's wild thing."

Police said last night they had still not determined a motive for the incidents.