President Carter called executives of the food industry to the White House yesterday and said he was "particularly disturbed" because consumers have not reaped the full benefit of recent drops in farm prices.
The president's pointed remarks, delivered during an hour-long session with 16 supermarket executives and trade group spokesmen, marked the furthest he has gone in publicly chastising an industry in the anti-inflation fight.
Alfred E. Kahn, Carter's chief inflation adviser, told reporters at a briefing later he thought the session would prompt the food executives "to look again" at their pricing practices, if only to check their margins.
However, Robert O. Aders, president of the Food Marketing Institute, charged that the information on which Carter was basing his assertions "is wrong," and said he was "sure" that the president was convinced now there was no profiteering.
Aders said the industry leaders had agreed to work with Agriculture Department officials to settle a dispute over the way farm-to-retail price spreads are calculated - a figure that forms the basis of the government's charges.
However, he said - and Kahn conceded - that the industry had made no pledges to alter existing pricing practices, which the administration has contended are resulting in industry middlemen profiting excessively.
Ironically, however, some price relief at retail may already have begun. The consumer price index the government published for June showed a 0.1 percent dip in grocery prices, and many stores announced major cuts last week.
Industry leaders contended yesterday the price-cutting was in line with the traditional lag between farm-price declines and reductions at the supermarket level.
The session with the president came after top White House aides became convinced that processors and retailers were not reducing their prices quickly enough to reflect the recent drop in farm prices.
After Carter's charges of excessive "profiting" drew cheers during a political speech in Baltimore last week, the White House announced he was summoning food industry leaders to a session.
Carter told the group yesterday that although farm prices had declined at a 17.3 percent annual rate between April and June, supermarket prices have continued rising, widening the farm-retail "spread" by 28.6 percent.
He particularly cited some items where he said the spread had "gone up to an extraordinary level." The president listed a 108.5 percent increase for meat and a 90 percent rise for fruit.
Aders countered in a statement later that Carter's charges were "totally wrong," and argued that the figures did not account either for the traditional lags between farm and food prices or the the rising cost of trucking and utilities.
However, neither Aders nor other food industry executives would provide new figures to replace those used by the administration. Although Aders answered questions after the meeting, other executives refused to comment.
The industry leaders also complained to Carter that their own costs were being kept high by "government-imposed costs and red tape," such as Interstate Commerce Commission regulations on trucking.
Agriculture Department officials said later the government's main complaint was that the industry appeared to be departing from its traditional pricing practices by prolonging the lag between farm price dips and retail declines.
Officials said when farm prices were rising last autumn, the industry maintained the farm-to-retail spread by boosting supermarket prices quickly. But in recent months, while farm prices have declined, the spread has widened "substantially."
However, Aders insisted yesterday that while "there may be some differences" in the industry's response, "they're not all that extreme." At the same time, he cited only five firm price declines out of about 1,000 items he's tracked.
Carter's Council on Wage and Price Stability has cited 30 supermarkets and other food industry firms with "probable noncompliance" with its wage-price guidelines, but so far as not identified the firms.
Yesterday, the council cleared the Getty Oil Co. of possible violations in the wake of an earlier challenge to the firm's price increases, but cited the Marion Brick Corp. of Marion, Ohio, for violations.
Yesterday's White House session appeared not to have changed minds on either side. Kahn told reporters later he did not think it would be "fair" to describe Carter as having been convinced by the industry's arguments.
"The president expressed skepticism," the inflation adviser said.
The food executives included the chairmen of the A&P, Safeway, Kroger, Jewel, Super Value, Hormel, Path Markets and Alberton's grocery chains, and the presidents of Lever Brothers Co. and Winn-Dixie stores.
Also represented were the American Meat Institute and National Independent Meat Packers Association. CAPTION: Picture, President Carter and administration officials at meeting with executives of food industry at the White House. AP