The latest survey aimed at helping Washington area residents find the lowest food prices in town was released yesterday by a local consumer group.

In essence, the survey concluded that of the 16 metropolitan stores checked during June 1 to 3, warehouse stores generally are the least expensive and the four big chain stores--Giant, Safeway, A&P and Grand Union--are the most expensive.

Between those two price extremes, the survey said, are the independent, medium-size chains, such as Magruder's and Jumbo. (Convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven and High's, were not included in the survey.)

Published in "Price Fighter," a newsletter put out by the "Washington Consumers' Checkbook" magazine, the food survey was based on a price check of 126 items, including national brands, meat and produce.

Major retailers, including Giant Food Inc., immediately questioned the survey on the grounds it was too limited to be useful to consumers and could be misleading.

"Today's typical food store contains over 15,000 items, so comparing only 126 items . . . is not an indicator of who has the highest prices versus the lowest prices," said Barry Scher, director of public affairs for Giant.

Scher said shoppers trying to save money should pay attention to store specials, use unit pricing and compare prices for the items they regularly buy.

In fact, individual consumers seeking the best food buys in town would be smart to consider what Scher said as well as what the Checkbook price survey shows and then conduct their own research.

One Washington resident, annoyed by the claims and counterclaims of lower prices, sat down one evening and made a grocery list of his family's regular purchases. Then he spent another evening systematically checking prices for those items at the stores that were convenient to his home.

His private survey told him which store had the lowest prices for his family's needs.

But because family food purchases vary, depending on the size of the family, the taste preferences and the bank account, you can't be sure which store is best for you until you do your own market check.

In the meantime, here is a breakdown of the price index scores for the 16 stores in the newsletter survey: Lowest was Marlin Annex, a salvage warehouse store, where the complete market basket of 126 items had an average price of $70; Plus, $85; Shoppers Food Warehouse, $86; Food Barn, $87; Basics, $89; Bag'n Box $92; Jumbo, $93; Food Town, $94; Magruder's, $94; Cook's, $96; Co-op, $98; Save Right, $99; Safeway, $99; Giant, $100; A&P, $100; and Grand Union, $101.

Highlights of the survey include:

* Some area warehouse stores are 11 to 14 percent below the four big chains in price but have a more limited selection of merchandise. Shoppers Food Warehouse, for instance, was 14 percent below the big chains in price but had only 78 percent of the market basket items surveyed. Basics, with eight local stores, was 11 percent below the majors in price and had 69 percent of the market basket items.

* Price variation among the big chains was negligible--all were within 2 percent of each other on the total market basket cost.

* Medium-size chain supermarkets, such as Magruder's and Jumbo, had prices that were lower than the major chains but higher than the warehouse stores.

* For fresh produce, the lowest prices were at Shoppers Food Warehouse and at Magruder's. The price index for produce, for instance, was $6.80 at Shoppers Food and $7 at Magruder's, compared with $8.60 at Giant, $8.70 at Basics, $9.20 at Safeway, $10.60 at A&P and $11.20 at Grand Union.

Save Right, the limited-assortment store operated by Giant, had prices that averaged just 1 percentage point less than prices at the regular Giant supermarkets--$99 for the Save Right market basket compared with $100 at Giant--and the same as Safeway's $99.

A copy of the newsletter can be bought for $1.50 from Checkbook, 1518 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005. The telephone number is (202) 347-9612.