The Agriculture Department recently informed 23 countries, including every one in Central America, that unless they improve their meat inspection and processing procedures they will be barred from exporting meat products to the United States as of Jan. 1.

Exports from the countries involved--including Belgium, France, Ireland and Iceland--represent 1.3 percent of the United State's meat supply. None of the major meat- exporting countries is involved, according to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service spokesman John McClung.

McClung added that most of the 23 countries involved "have only minor things to remedy. We fully expect most or all of them will be back" in the good graces of the USDA before the deadline. "We haven't shot 'em; we've only showed 'em the gun," he added.

The USDA's action comes as its inspection service is under renewed criticism from Public Voice, a group advocating food safety. Two weeks ago, the group sent Agriculture Secretary John R. Block a letter asking why Canadian meat inspectors blocked importation of meat products from 12 U.S. plants that USDA inspectors had given clean bills of health.

Noting that the 12 plants represented about 20 percent of U.S. plants inspected by the Canadians in the first five months of this year, Ellen Haas and Tom Smith of Public Voice said, "It is alarming that this percentage of plants could be found to maintain sanitation and other operational deficiencies serious enough to warrant a delisting by the Canadian government when these plants have the benefit of continuous federal inspection . . . .

"It is inexcusable that these conditions are allowed to persist in federally inspected meat plants and that as consumers we must rely on the Canadian government to call hazardous processing conditions to the attention of the public."

However, both the USDA's McClung and Andre Gravel, an associate director in the meat inspection division of Canada's Agriculture Ministry, said that the violations do not represent a threat to health.

Gravel said, "You have to understand when we visit a plant we take the plant as it is on that day. If problems can be cleared up in a day, they often are. Longer-term problems like improper construction mean delisting."

However, he said, "The unsatisfactory conditions that exist at the time of the visit may be corrected the week after. I don't think the American public is endangered by the conditions in these plants."

McClung pointed out that, while Canadian delisting is automatic if their inspectors find violations, American inspectors must demonstrate a clear hazard to public health before they can automatically shut a plant down. Closure for a lesser hazard involves a protracted hearing and appeals process.