Consumer prices rose a moderate 4.8 per cent in 1976, even lower than the target set by the Ford administration early last year.

Most of the slowdown in consumer prices - they had jumped 7 per cent in 1975 and 12.2 per cent in 1974 - came about because food prices rose only 0.6 per cent during the year.

But increases of most other goods and services also were slower than in 1975 and 1974, as good crops, slower increases in oil prices and a general worldwide economic slowdown combined to hold back inflation.

The Labor Department said that in December its consumer price index rose 0.4 per cent, a little faster than the 0.3 per cent increase it recorded in October and November.

But over the last three months, a time period economists say is more important in judging inflation, consumer prices have been increasing at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.2 per cent, even lower than that for the whole year.

The 1976 inflation performance is one of the bright spots in President Ford's economic record.When he took office in August, 1974, prices were rising at a double-digit rate and one of his first acts as chief executive was to convene a series of inflation conferences culminating in a big economic summit conference here in September, 1974.

Last spring, after seeing that inflation during the first quarter was going up at only a 2.9 per cent annual rate, Ford said his goal was to reduce inflation below 5 per cent for the whole year. If the inflation rate is one of the economic successes of Ford's tenure, the unemployment rate has been one of his disappointments. Unemployment climbed to 9 per cent at the depths of the recession in 1975 and has fallen only to 7.8 per cent in December. About 7.5 million Americans were out of work in December.

Last year's inflation rate may be the best for several years to come, according to projections made by the President in his proposed 1978 budget earlier this week. That forecast sees consumer prices rising faster than 5 per cent a year until 1980.

Although that pace would be slightly faster than in 1976, it still would be low enough so that President-elect Jimmy Carter can boost spending and cut taxes in an attempt to boost economic production and employment without worrying about rekindling inflation.

The Labor Department said it December consumer price index was 174.3 per cent of its 1967 average. That means that a selection of goods and services that cost $10 in 1967 cost $17.43 in December.

The consumer price index is composed of about 400 different items whose prices are collected each month by the Labor Department in 56 cities. While all percentage changes are adjusted for seasonal variation, the index itself is not.

The Department said that the December rise of 0.2 in food prices was "due to higher prices for beef, eggs, cofee, poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables and restaurant meals." Grocery store prices alone also 0.2 per cent last month but over the year fell 0.9 per cent.

The Department noted that coffee rose 6.8 per cent in December and jumped 57.9 per cent over the year, Coffee prices have been soaring because of a 1975 freeze that damaged many trees in Brazil, the world's major producer. Fuel oil and coal prices increased 1.4 per cent, and Alan Greenspan, outgoing chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, noted that sharp increases in natural gas prices are pushing up fuel costs as well.

Medical care prices, which had skyrocketed 1.5 per cent in November, rose 0.6 per cent in December.

Although the prognosis for curling inflation looks reasonably good for the next few years - when compared with 1973 and 1974 - major crop shortages or a simultaneous boom among the world's industrial countries could drive prices back up again.

The Labor Department also reported that real take-home pay rose 0.2 per cent for the average worker in December and is 0.1 per cent higher than in December, 1975.