The fate of a bill to gradually remove Virginia's sales tax on food appeared bleak tonight after the proposal ran into opposition from influential farm and business groups.

In an effort spearheaded by former delegate Edward E. Lane, representatives of the state's grocers, farmers and retail merchants took potshots at the bill at a hearing before the House Finance Committee.

They were joined by some members of the committee, who questioned the wisdom of removing the food tax at a time when the state is being forced to cut spending for education and Gov. John N. Dalton is requesting increased taxes for highways, Metro and unemployment insurance.

"Doesn't it strike you as a bit ironic that we're talking about taking $120 million (annually) off food and putting $120 million more on gasoline," asked Del. George W. Jones (R-Chesterfield. "Doesn't it bother you that we're playing numerical games with the people of Virginia?"

Food tax repeal, favored by most Northern Virginia legislators, has been proposed for at least the last six years, each time going down to defeat in committee because legislators questioned how the state could make up the lost revenues. This year's bill attemped to answer that problem by proposing a gradual cut of 1 percent every two years of the 4 percent tax as a way of cushioning the impact on the treasury.

Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington, the bill's chief sponsor, argued that the gradual repeal would ease an unfair burden on the poor and elderly who are hardest hit by rising food prices. Spokesmen from consumer, labor, senior citizen and civil rights groups all spoke for the bill today, as did Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb.

"It's a regressive and cruel tax because it impacts hardest on those least able to afford it," argued Del. James S. Christian Jr. (D-Richmond), who noted that 25 states and the District of Columbia do not tax food.

But after Stambaugh finished parading supporters before the committee, opponents took over. Lane, a registered lobbyist for the Virginia Food Dealers Association, presented two members of the group who complained that the gradual repeal would require grocers to install sophisticated computing equipment and cost customers at least $20 million a year in higher prices.

Next came spokesmen for the Virginia Farm Bureau and the Agribusiness Council, followed by a lawyer representing the Virginia Retail Merchants Association. All of them claimed to support tax relief for the needy, but expressed fears that the lost revenues from the food tax might inevitably be made up by increasing taxes in other areas.

"It's a uniformly fair tax that serves as a vehicle for all individuals to pay their fair share," argued Clinton Martin of the Farm Bureau.

Several of the lobbyists said they would not oppose alternative measures to grant a state income tax credit for persons with incomes below $12,000 a year. And some committee members who were opposed to the Stambaugh bill said they also may support the alternatives.

"I count nine for it [Stambaugh's bill], but it's a weak nine," said Del. Martin H. Perper (R-Fairfax), who supports the repeal bill. It would take 11 votes for the 20-member committee to pass the bill.

One of the bill's most influential opponents, Speaker of the House A. L. Philpott, who observed part of the hearing, agreed with Perper that the bill's chances were slim.

"Just where do they think they'll get the money to pay for it?" asked Philpott, "And just how do they think they'll get past the governor's veto?"

Gov. Dalton has not said publicly whether he would veto a food tax repeal bill, but has warned that any tax-cutting measure must be accompanied by a cut in state spending to make up for the lost revenue.