The U.S. government has spent at least $68 million this year to help private food companies promote their brand-name products in foreign countries, according to a new General Accounting Office report.

The report urged the Agriculture Department to improve administration of the Targeted Export Assistance program "to ensure accountability for . . . funds and compliance with . . . guidelines."

"There is debate . . . on whether branded promotion should be funded with government market development funds," the report said. "Some {Agriculture Department} officials have expressed concern that . . . funds are being used to fund foreign market development activities by certain large, well-established corporations."

The GAO study, dated June 27 but not yet published, was prepared at the request of Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who will attempt to amend the Targeted Export Assistance program during this week's debate on the 1990 farm bill.

The Schumer amendment would cut funding for the program from $200 million per year to $110 million per year for the five-year life of the farm bill. It also excludes brand-name advertising from the program.

"If brand-name promotion is so effective in expanding markets, companies should . . . pay for it on their own," Schumer said in a statement.

A copy of the GAO report examined by The Washington Post said the program cost taxpayers $730 million in 1986-90. The report said $68 million of $200 million appropriated for 1990 had gone to private firms for brand-name advertising and promotion in foreign countries.

To obtain funds under Targeted Export Assistance, applicants must show that foreign countries have imposed unfair trade restrictions on their products.

The Agriculture Department spends most of the program monies on generic advertising contracted by producer associations, but individual firms can obtain matching funds from the program to help them with their own advertising.

The report listed 295 firms that had received funds under the program in 1989. Many were small businesses -- local wineries, candy companies, dried-fruit packers -- but the list also included some

of the biggest food and agribusiness corporations in the United States.

Sunkist, the biggest single beneficiary, received $9.2 million under the program. Other participants included: M&M Mars candy ($783,100); Gerber baby foods ($24,400); McDonald's Corp. ($210,000); and Gallo wine ($2.2 million).