Moscow — The wait behind 14 other people finally paid off for the woman in the purple coat and brown kerchief. She reached the head of the queue and got the chance to order four pounds of bony, sinewy beef.
But the line didn't grow any shorter. As she hurried off to pay, another woman joined the line - behind 14 new people.
In a way this queue in a Moscow butcher shop is an apt depiction of the slow, determined effort of the Soviet government to tackle one of this country's biggest economic problems - its inability to provide the growing populace with meat.
Soviet meat production is now at an all-time high. And new records may be set again this year.
The Russians seem to have made a determined effort to keep production levels up. That is one of the key reasons why the country is expected to import a near-record 46 million tons of grain this year. Much of the grain will be used in bread, freeing up lower-quality Soviet stocks for animal feed.
The push for more meat carries a staggeringly high price tag - yet shortages of meat persist.
Like the line in the butcher shop, the problem seems not to be getting worse. But neither is it getting appreciably better.
Nevertheless, the feat of merely staying in the same place merited special praise for meat producers from Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko recently.
Why all the high-level attention to meat?
The situation is undoubtedly hard to understand in the West, where meat shortages are the occasional aberration or a fading memory of the war years.
Here in the Soviet Union, however, they are the present-day norm.
Soviet consumers find that extremely irritating. Soviet politicians find it extremely embarrassing.
Even though this country is now the world's largest poultry producer, you will not hear a Soviet politician promise a chicken for every pot.
After all, even long-suffering Soviet consumers have their limits of tolerance.
So touchy is the subject that what results might be called the politicization of the meat markets. When they're near-empty - as they often are here - they act as persistent and unpleasant reminders of the failings of a political ideal.
''Even in a totalitarian state, you've got pressure from the population,'' says one Western expert.
Accordingly, he says, ''The emphasis in on providing more meat. That's what Ivan wants. . . .''
Soviet meat production so far is up 6 percent over last year, and last year set a new record.
All told, the country produced 16.45 million tons of meat last year.
The effort was aided by mild winters during each of those years: Animals did not need as much feed to keep warm, and more of what they ate went to added weight. But the Soviets also apparently made a determined effort to increase the land area where forage crops are grown in order to provide a steadier supply of animal food. The land area planted with forage crops in 1982 was 160 million hectares - up 20 million hectares over the average area during the years 1976 through 1980.
The Russians have continued record imports of grain - despite the fact that the country is self-sufficient in grains needed for producing bread. In fact, last year the Soviets fed 123 million tons of grain to cattle. The imports, while a boon to American farmers, have cut deeply into the country's foreign currency reserves.
And the country also imported almost a million tons of meat, including chickens and hogs from Eastern Europe, beef from France and Argentina, and mutton from New Zealand and Australia.
Still, despite all efforts to increase meat supplies, official statistics indicate that per capita meat consumption has remained about the same over past few years. Population growth is clearly part of the reason.
So, too, is the notorious inefficiency of the Soviet agricultural system, with its stress on collective and state-owned farms. One telltale example: In 1983, the United States, with only 70 percent as many hogs as the Soviet Union, produced 20 percent more pork.
Indeed, the amount of meat the average Soviet citizen consumes each year - 57 kilograms - is well below what the Soviet government itself defines as a ''rational norm'' of 70 kg. The government says it plans to meet that target in 1990. Whether that target will be met is anybody's guess.
''Meat production is the most successful area of Soviet agriculture,'' says one expert.
''It's positive,'' he says, ''in that they're no longer stagnating. But it's still very inefficient.''
''It's clear,'' he concludes, ''that they've got a long, long way to go.''