A group of food processors has chosen the saccharin ban dispute as the battleground in their effort to discredit the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), giving them the edge in future disputes over other, more financially important, food additives.

"This is the best issue that we'll ever have to take the FDA to task on," said William Miller, vice president of Royal Crown Cola Co. and chairman of the Calorie Control Council, the lobbying arm of a group of food manufacturers that either make or use artificial flavors and colors.

"If we don't do it now, we never will," he added. "There are 1,800 flavors we use in foods, and the FDA will try to attack each and every one . . . Industry cannot live with an FDA that cannot accept science and creates a science of their own."

Deputy FDA commissioner Sherwin Gardner conceded that the saccharin dispute could be the big play in a long ballgame. He added "If they are trying to discredit us scientifically using the saccharin case, they've picked the wrong vehicle to do with ."

The processor's idea is to take advantage of public attention to the ban and create a groundswell of opinion against the FDA.

Miller talked bitterly of the days when the industry lost battles with the FDA over cyclamates, Red dye no. 2, and brominated oil (a wood resin used to stabilize carbonated beverages). All were suspected carcinogens. "We didn't have the public behind us like we do now," he said.

The council has a multi-million dollar war chest and has spent an estimated $2.5 million so far. Since the FDA announced the proposed ban on March 9, the council has:

placed about 32 two-page advertisements in major newspapers, questioning the validity of the scientific tests that on which the ban was based and attacking the FDA. Such ads can cost as much as $20,000 apiece.

retained the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton, Inc., to present the council's side of the issue.

distributed scientific information questioning the validity of the ban to news media all over the country. The scientific studies cited in this information were, in many cases, funded by the council itself.

"Our basic thrust used to be scientific in nature," said Robert Gelardi, chairman of the Calorie Control Council. In a telephone interview from council headquarters in Atlanta, he said, "Recently we've had to change our arena of action. We've become political rather than scientific in nature."

Those against the ban have developed some powerful allies in Congress. Rep. James Martin (R-N.C.) proposed an amendment to the Delaney Amendment, which mandates that FDA ban any food additive found to cause cancer in humans or animals. Sen. Richard S. Schweiker (R-Pa.) has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.

"Some things, such as saccharin, which cause cancer in high doses in rats, may have benefits in man . . . such as for diabetics," Rep. Martin said "we need an amendment that will allow us to weigh the benefits against the risks."

Every time Martin has found a forum in which to call attention to his bill, Hill & Knowlton, with Calorie Control Council funds, has publicized the event.

Deputy commissioner Gardner feels changing the Delaney Amendment would give the agency more work to do, but "the agency could still ban carcinogens," he said.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the Health Research Group, disagrees: "There is no question that the FDA would be weakened without the (present) Delaney Amendment."