The Bush administration ought to reconsider its predecessor's plan to allow meat plants to operate largely on an honor system in complying with health standards.

The Department of Agriculture, under a program advanced by the Reagan administration, plans to cut way back on its inspection service. The government then would rely mainly on processors themselves to meet health regulations.In defending deregulation of processing plants, former Agriculture Secretary Richard Lyng said: "You can make inspection more efficient and put some added burden on the inspected facility. You save the taxpayers money and you have a better product when you're through."

The theory is that the new system would free inspectors to concentrate on plants with chronic problems.

The proposal is questionable at best. The Wall Street Journal carried a lengthy article the other day giving a stomach-turning portrait of conditions in many meat plants even with federal inspectors on the job.

Complaints ranged from the commingling of rodent droppings with raw meat items, to filthy equipment and workplaces, to tubs of turkey meat sprinkled with shards of aluminum from a defective meat tenderizer, to veal and lamb carcasses passing supposedly clean-meat stations still contaminated with hair, dirt and fecal matter.

Poultry plants already have been deregulated to a large extent, allowing automated production lines to increase processing of birds from an average of 50 per minute to 91.

Critics claim this has increased the industry's salmonella problem. The Journal article said that one-third of chickens found on the market today are contaminated with salmonella bacteria. Fortunately, proper cooking eliminates much of the danger.

Nonetheless, the number of salmonella cases reported has doubled to 40,000 a year within the past two decades, and experts estimate the actual number at 2 million a year, including perhaps 2,000 deaths. Reducing the number of federal inspectors hardly seems likely to turn that trend around.

The Journal cited an instance of a shouting, swearing Chicago meat plant owner chasing a federal inspector into his office and kicking down the door after the inspector ordered dirty equipment shut down.

Does anyone think a fellow like that is going to run a model plant when the inspector is no longer around?