There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was mouldy and white -- it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and the sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats race about on it. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them, they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat, would go into the hoppers together.

SO WROTE Upton Sinclair in 1906 in "The Jungle," the book that inspired the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Since that law was passed, an Agriculture Department meat inspector has been required to visit every meat plant that slaughters animals and processes meat every day. It is a process most of us meat-eaters have come to take for granted.

Not so the Reagan administration or congressional leaders like Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. William Wampler (R-Va.) and -- you might not be surprised to learn -- the American Meat Institute. They want the law changed to eliminate the daily inspections and allow meat company employees at plants with good records to make most of the checks on sanitation, labeling and adulteration.

To understand just why this is such a thoroughly bad idea, you don't have to suppose that today's meatpackers would return to the practices Mr. Sinclair described; you just have to understand that our current system serves us well, at minimal cost. A century ago, if you lived more than a few miles from beef on the hoof, you probably didn't eat much meat at all, and what you did eat was probably spoiled. The refrigerated freight car made meat widely available, but as "The Jungle" showed, the meatpacking industry that sprang into existence could not be relied on to produce wholesome products. Consumers could not detect all abuses, and self-regulation -- what the Reagan administration wants to go some way back toward -- simply did not work.

Enter the federal government. For 76 years, USDA inspectors have performed their duties honestly, efficiently and fairly. Our meat inspection system has been a model for the world. It has protected those meatpackers scrupulous enough to use more expensive, careful methods of processing against competition from firms less scrupulous, and it has given small firms' products the same imprimatur of purity that the products of large firms enjoy because of their heavy advertising and reputations; thus the National Meat Association, representing 200 small meatpackers and processors, opposes the administration's changes.

Who wants these changes? Not those who want to save money: the administration says the changes would save only about $15 million a year -- which is peanuts by any standard. The impetus evidently comes instead from some combination of meatpacking interests, whose motives seem grimly practical, and free-market zealots, whose motives seem ethereally ideological. They could hardly have found a less objectionable and more wholesome form of government regulation to object to. There is an old saying that has received wide currency from conservatives recently: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. It applies here. The meat inspection system ain't broke. Leave it alone.