A National Academy of Sciences panel yesterday called for major changes in the system that assures the quality of U.S. meat and poultry, saying inspection methods have failed to keep pace with technology or new health concerns.

While the panel found that the meat Americans consume is generally safe and wholesome, it said the Agriculture Department's inspection system is antiquated and incapable of preventing many of the most serious potential health problems.

"We can say that inspection assures that animals with no apparent disease are slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions," said Robert H. Wasserman, a Cornell veterinary professor who was chairman of the National Research Council study group.

But Wasserman said current procedures remain much like they were in 1906, when the law was passed requiring government inspections: federal employes look at, touch and smell meat animals and carcasses at slaughterhouses and processing plants.

That process, which can detect obvious lesions and diseases, made sense in an era when most death and disease was caused by acute infections, the panel said.

Modern concerns, however, run more to microbial infections from organisms such as salmonella and to chemical residues in animals that can pose health risks, Wasserman said.

These usually cannot be detected by traditional means.

The panel said part of the problem is that federal inspectors focus their attention on slaughter and processing, which represents only a small part of the production chain.

It recommended that some means be found for expanding the monitoring system to detect hazardous agents where they enter the food supply, including feedlots and farms, and for keeping track of food animals from birth to slaughter so that problems can be isolated quickly and dealt with.

The panel also called for federal inspectors to adopt new technologies, such as quick, reliable tests to detect microorganisms and hazardous chemicals in meat and poultry. Other new methods, such as ultrasound, could be used to explore carcasses much more efficiently than visual inspection, it suggested.

The report's criticisms are couched in gentle terms, and it praised the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service for its modernization efforts. The report was welcomed by FSIS Administrator Donald Houston, who said the report will help speed the department's efforts to change the inspection process.

At least one former USDA official said the committee's conclusions should be cause for concern.

"I think that report's very critical of the system," said Carol Tucker Foreman, assistant USDA secretary for food and consumer services during the Carter administration. "I think the public should be outraged and demand change."

She said the panel essentially found that the department is violating the law, which stipulates that USDA not give its stamp of approval to any meat or poultry that contains a potentially harmful substance.