Consumers have until Feb. 2 to tell the U.S. Department of Agriculture how they feel about its plan to cut in half the number of inspectors at meat and poultry processing plants.

The plan ought to elicit plenty of protests because of its potential for exposing more Americans to food poisoning.Already, the change is being opposed by a long list of consumer groups, including the Consumer Federation of America, the National Consumers League, the Government Accountability Project, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The USDA is trying to justify the reduction in inspectors on the grounds it would take place gradually over seven years, would entail inspectors concentrating on the plants with the worst records, and would end up saving $27 million a year.

But that saving amounts to less than one-tenth of a cent for each pound of meat and poultry consumed in this country. The USDA already has been suffering for years from a shortage of inspectors brought on by budget restrictions. Under the circumstances, even fewer inspectors and inspections seems bound to mean more undetected violations of the pure food laws, more health problems for consumers, and consequently more public relations problems for the meat and poultry industries.

The federal food regulation and inspection program has been rocked periodically by scandal and inefficiency. Does Washington really want to risk even more such woes?