The Agriculture Department yesterday proposed regulations to combat a problem that few consumers knew existed: the shortweighting of meat.

The proposed new regulations would require that the weight of a product be accurate when sold at a retail store as well as when it leaves the packing plant.

Sometimes, meat and poultry products lose moisture during shipping and storing and thus weigh less than what the label says. The new regulating would prevent the "drained moisture," still in the package, from being included in the weight, and thus the cost.

"The consumer who pays for one pound of product wants to know that it weighs one pound when it is bought - not at some previous time." Carol Tucker Foreman, assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services, said at a news conference in announcing the regulations.

But, Foreman added, consumers could expect to pay more if the regulations are adopted because food processors could charge extra to cover the costs of adding more product to compensate for moisture loss.

A number of states had more stringent laws concerning the stated weight on labels of meat and poultry than the federal government. Last March, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the states are precluded from imposing different or additional requirements than federal law, which says there can be "reasonable variations" between the stated and actual weight.

To get around the vagueness of the "reasonable variations" standard, the new regulations would substitute precise weight variations. A one-pound package of bacon, for example, could weigh up to three-fourths of an ounce less than one pound. If another package in the same shipment is overweighted to compensate. Thus, the average weight for all packages in the shipment would have to come out to one pound each.

Foreman said she couldn't estimate how much consumers now lose to shortweighting, but a California study estimated an average of 5 per cent, with an extra cost or "hidden inflation" to consumers of about $1 billion a year.

Marille Menard, a lobbyist with the National Broiler Council, a poultry trade organization, said her group would oppose the regulations because it is "mathematically impossible" to measure how much moisture a bird loses between the processing plant and the retail store. Because chickens vary in size, moisture loss varies, she said, and it would be a burden to try to compensate for weight loss on one by increasing the weight of another.

Kathleen O'Reilly, of the Consumer Federation of America, said her group supports the proposed regulations, and called them "a net gain for consumers."

The Department of Agriculture will have federal inspectors in the plants to spot-check and weigh products, but not in retail stores where it will rely on states to enforce the regulations.

John Ruth, head of the consumer protection division of the Maryland attorney general's office, hasn't seen the regulations, but said "anything is better than what we have now." He added, however, that if the federal about protecting the consumer, it would spot check at the retail level, rather than letting the states do it.

James Lyles, supervisor of the weights and measures office of Virginia's department of agriculture, said that if the proposed regulations are adopted. Virginia will move to adopt similar ones and thus have the authority to enforce them.

Industry and the public have until March 2 to comment on the regulations. State officials are planning to testify in Atlanta this month on how they can enforce them at the retail level.