With an eye to cutting the government's costs and the regulatory burden on industry, the Reagan administration wants to change the 76-year-old law that requires daily visits by federal inspectors to plants that slaughter animals and process meat.

At processing plants with good quality-control records, employes would make most of the checks on sanitation, labeling and adulteration. An Agriculture Department inspector would drop in sporadically to check the company's records and procedures against his own findings.

The USDA would continue to inspect slaughterhouses, but it might move away from the traditional definition of slaughter operations to put some of the processes under the new self-inspection program.

Since 1906, when the Federal Meat Inspection Act passed in the wake of Upton Sinclair's expose of the slaughterhouses in "The Jungle," the Agriculture Department has been required to visit every meat plant every day. The department's standards are tougher than those of other federal agencies that keep an eye on the things Americans eat.

For instance, a company that makes cheese pizzas is visited occasionally by a Food and Drug Administration inspector. Where pizzas are made with meat, the USDA inspector must come daily.

Consumer groups are concerned that the changes, which also would apply to poultry and egg processing, will lead to a decline in food safety, in part because the proposed legislation leaves a good deal to the discretion of the agriculture secretary and many of the specifics to be worked out through regulations.

The meat industry is divided over the bill. The American Meat Institute, which represents 325 slaughter and processing operations, supports it, saying the proposal recognizes advancements in processing technology and industry efforts to regulate itself.

But the National Meat Association, which represents 200 smaller meat packers and processors, opposes the bill because "it gives the secretary broader authority than he needs," said spokesman Paul Karody. His group's members rely more on the department to keep a close eye on their plants.

The change has powerful sponsors on Capitol Hill: Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. William C. Wampler (R-Va.). But the press of other legislation will make it impossible for this Congress to take up the bill.

The USDA spends about $320 million and employs about 7,500 inspectors to visit 7,100 slaughter and processing operations daily. Larger plants have inspectors assigned nearly full time. Smaller ones are included in the inspectors' daily rounds.

Department officials say they have had trouble keeping up with the growth of the industry. In testimony before a Senate subcommittee last week, C.W. McMillan, assistant secretary for marketing and inspection services, reported that the number of inspected plants increased 60 percent from 1971 to 1981 and that the cost of inspecting processing plants has nearly tripled over the same time.

The department expects the change, if enacted next year, to save $104.7 million over seven years. Most of the savings would be achieved by cutting the number of processing inspectors from 2,215 this year to 1,077 in fiscal 1989. The USDA says it can achieve these reductions through attrition.

Two years ago the department implemented a similar system in which plants with good records could monitor themselves, with an inspector visiting daily to check their data and make his own tests. As of the end of June, 70 plants had qualified for this approach, according to the department.

The USDA argues that the system will be effective because the plants find they can control costs better by implementing quality-control systems. But nutrition activists see it differently.

Tom Smith, research director of the Community Nutrition Institute, said, "The principal problem . . . is that it attempts to apply a management procedure -- which is designed to prevent processing mistakes that add to plant costs -- to the public need for an inspection system which prevents processors from producing products that cause consumers economic and physical harm."

Critics also are concerned because the proposed legislation is short on specifics, with no set criteria for determining which firms qualify and no specific penalties for firms that violate the law.

USDA officials respond that the specifics will be worked into the regulations that follow the law. As Smith sees it, however, that leaves the system "open to all kinds of abuse," and economic and political pressures could influence decisions about public health and welfare.

Agriculture officials say that current penalties would continue to apply under the new legislation. Inspectors have the right to stop a plant's operations if they spot unsanitary conditions, and the department can also prosecute companies that mislabel or adulterate their products.

The department charges about 150 plants (mostly slaughtering operations) each year, winning favorable verdicts in about 50 cases and settling the rest out of court.

Carol Tucker Foreman, former assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services, said that the present penalty system is "utterly ineffective" and that, unless the USDA builds "swift, sure" penalties into the law, the amendments will not protect consumers.

Consumer groups also say they are worried about their access to inspection records once the companies are in charge of compiling most of their own data. Test results would be classified as trade secrets and inaccessible. The USDA already refuses to release many inspection records, saying it needs to shield them in case it decides to prosecute.

Critics say that if the bill passes the information would become even more important, because it would allow the public to draw its own conclusions about plant operations.