Congress and the Food and Drug Administration got several pats on the back last week for improving sanitary conditions in the food-manufacturing industry.

The General Accounting Office handed out the kudos after reviewing an FDA study comparing results of random inspections of food-manufacturing plants in 1972 and again in 1983.

Last year the FDA found that 7 percent of the sample 152 food-processing facilities had unsanitary conditions compared with 40 percent of plants inspected in 1972.

In conducting the study, FDA inspectors looked at the availability of hand-washing facilities, the physical condition of food-processing areas, accumulation of dust and dirt, evidence of insects and rodents, and storage of unused equipment and trash.

While a majority of the processing plants in the recent study were found to have minor sanitation problems, none of those conditions was likely to result in food adulteration, the FDA reported. Three of the 152 establishments inspected had very serious violations of sanitation rules and the adulterated products were seized or destroyed.

In comments accompanying the GAO review, the Department of Health and Human Services said it was pleased to be acknowledged for improving food-production conditions over the last 11 years, but it passed the credit along to Congress for providing the funds that made it all possible.

"This improvement is largely attributable to the action of the Congress. In 1973, Congress, acting on GAO's recommendation, increased the resources allocated to the FDA for sanitation inspections," the HHS response said.

While cutbacks in inspection programs have been widespread in the Reagan administration -- which generally adheres to the philosophy that voluntary compliance is the best policy -- the food-sanitation programs have done fairly well.

The budget for those programs dipped slightly in fiscal 1982, but jumped to $45 million the next year. According to the GAO, the FDA budgeted $47.5 million for food sanitation in fiscal year 1984 and according to a FDA spokesman, Congress is likely to approve a request for $48.7 million next year.

Nonetheless, HHS also wrote that as the food manufacturing industry has begun to police itself better, the FDA has been able to reduce inspections and reallocate those monies elsewhere in the food safety program.

In keeping with such a move, the GAO encouraged the FDA to continue to remove small, retail businesses with little or no interstate sales, such as bakeries, from the agency's routine inspection list and perhaps leave that task to state and local governments.