Safeway, the area's second largest supermarket chain, has stopped selling USDA Choice beef selections -- the grade most often purchased by consumers -- in nearly all of its local stores, officials said yesterday. They said the change is resulting in lower prices and leaner cuts of meat.

Until recently, the 156 Safeway stores here offered a variety of government-graded beef cuts and some ungraded beef. But now 134 of the stores sell only ungraded beef, which the company calls "Safeway Quality Beef." The change, which went into effect over the last month, involves chiefly beef roasts and steaks.

Ungraded beef must meet the same health and safety rules as graded beef but generally is too lean to qualify for top government grades, such as Prime or Choice. Beef is graded on the basis of marbling, or flecks of fat. Higher grades have more marbling and generally are juicier, more flavorful -- and more expensive.

Safeway spokesman Ernest Moore said ungraded beef costs the chain less than graded beef and is being sold to customers for less than the graded cuts.

The savings for consumers range from 10 to 40 cents a pound, Moore said. The ungraded sirloin steak at Safeway yesterday was $2.99, compared to $3.39 for the choice sirloin steak available at Safeway stores that still sell graded beef, Moore said.

He said that beef sales have increased significantly over year-ago levels since stores switched to ungraded beef in mid-August.

One other major Washington-area grocery chain has a policy of selling only ungraded beef. The 49 A&P supermarkets here don't sell any government-graded beef. "You have to pay for the grading, and in areas where it isn't required, we don't do it," said Mike Rourke, an A&P spokesman.

Instead, he said, A&P purchases beef that would come close to qualifying for choice and good grades if they had been checked and marked by government inspectors. Safeway's new policy is essentially the same.

Most other Washington area supermarkets generally sell a combination of graded and ungraded beef or graded only. Giant Food Inc., which has 128 stores and is the area's largest chain, sells both. But Grand Union, which operates 48 regular supermarkets and five Basics stores here, stocks only USDA Choice beef, according to Don Vaillancourt, a company vice president.

Some store officials expressed surprise about the change in Safeway's beef policy.

Stanford Steppa, one of the owners of the four local Magruder's stores, which sells only graded beef, said: "We have never touched a piece of ungraded beef and we are not interested in it. We deal only in choice or prime."

Consumers reacted to the Safeway switch with mixed feelings.

Charlotte Newton, president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, said Safeway shoppers have lost an important option. "Some people like lean meat ungraded better," she said. "But it is worth it to me to pay the extra 10 to 15 cents a pound to get a choice steak, because it tastes better. But the key is that people like to have an option."

Carol Foreman, a former Agriculture Department assistant secretary and a consumer advocate, said that she is basically sympathetic to the Safeway policy change.

"I can't think of any reason why it is bad for consumers for stores to sell only lean ungraded beef ," she said, "because people are anxious generally to have more lean meat and the price can be lower that way."

Both Foreman and Newton criticized Safeway for implementing the change without an announcement.

"It is deceptive to do that without saying anything," Newton said. She said that shoppers in many cases may not have realized that the meat they have been buying at Safeway has been ungraded rather than graded. Newton said she only became aware of the change when she noticed the absence of the USDA Choice label on a steak.

Safeway spokesman Moore said that the ungraded beef was properly labeled as "Quality Beef." "We didn't have a big advertising campaign," he said. "But if anybody asked, we told them."

"The major difference in Safeway quality ungraded beef and choice beef is that it has less fat waste," Moore said.