After eight years of regulatory bickering, all in the name of "honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers," the Food and Drug Administration has issued a sugar-content standard for pineapple juice made from concentrate.

The Hawaiian pineapple growers lost, the makers of Juice Bowl pineapple juice won and John Q. Consumer probably will never know the difference.

No matter how you slice it, the question was not one of healthfulness or palatability. It was industry economics, sweet and neat, and the federal government, that oft-hated font of burdensome regulations, was simply the referee.

So it came to pass in a six-page Federal Register notice last week, that after years of proposals, comments, counterproposals and a full hearing before an administrative law judge, all reconstituted pineapple juice sold in the United States after May 23, 1983, must have a minimum "Brix" of 12.8 degrees. Brix is the industry measure of soluble solids, essentially sugar content.

This Solomonic decision by FDA Commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes Jr. puts the lid on a shrill dispute between the Pineapple Growers Association of Hawaii, which wanted a higher standard, and Juice Bowl Inc. of Lakeland, Fla., which makes its juice from an imported concentrate with less sugar.

The prickly saga began in 1974, when the Hawaiian growers petitioned the FDA to allow the sale of canned pineapple juice made from a concentrate.

Until then, all the canned juice sold here came straight from Hawaiian pineapples.

FDA readily agreed, and in due time it came out with a set of standards for the reconstituted juice. That's when things got sticky.

Figuring that reconstituted juice ought to resemble the real stuff as closely as possible, the FDA set a minimum Brix level of 13.5, or about the level of Hawaiian pineapples.

But between the growers' petition and the FDA standards, things were changing in pineappledom. The industry was moving abroad--to Mexico, the Philippines and Thailand--where the pineapple plantations are lovely to behold but, alas, produce a concentrate that doesn't measure up, Brix-wise, to the Hawaiian standard.

Juice Bowl, which taps the import market for most of its concentrate, objected to FDA's standard and argued for a lower minimum Brix of 12.5.

This put FDA in a bit of a quandary. It is one thing to say that pineapple juice from a concentrate must be as sweet as pineapple juice from a pineapple, but the question of how sweet is a pineapple is clearly a regulatory matter better left to Mother Nature.

Both the growers and the packers agreed that there is no difference in nutritional value or consumer acceptance between the two kinds of juice. "You'd have to be a connoisseur to tell the difference," said Juice Bowl official Terry Simmers.

The difference is in how much concentrate has to go into a can of juice.

Hawaiian concentrate is more expensive than the imported variety, but it becomes more attractive when more of the imported concentrate has to be used to raise the Brix level enough.

The frustrated regulators at FDA hauled out a pocket calculator, averaged the Brix of all the concentrate, domestic and imported, that goes into the pina coladas of America, and arrived at the magic number of 12.8.

Then it rationalized the difference between juice-from-a-pineapple and juice-from-a-concentrate by deciding that reconstituted juice is really a different product, not to be confused with or regulated alongside "traditional foods."

Juice Bowl and a variety of other pineapple juice packers, which meet an interim standard of 12.5 Brix, are slightly disgruntled at having to meet the new standard.

"I'd give awful good odds you couldn't tell the difference," said Simmers.

But the Hawaiian growers are crushed. "Our position is that the average Brix of juice is more like 13.5," said John Tolan of the growers' association. "All we wanted was a product that is more like what has been sold as pineapple juice."

If anyone can remember now.