You can't say it's been a front-burner issue for most people, either the millions of Americans who enjoy barbecue on the grill or out of the can, or the Department of Agriculture regulators who first proposed changing the rules seven years ago.

But for Castleberry/Snow's Brands Inc. in Augusta, Ga., which has been cooking, canning and freezing beef and pork in barbecue sauce since 1926, the recent modification in regulations governing the product are a big deal.

The revision in the "standard of identity," which the department announced in June, drops a key step in the preparation of the products the company sells throughout the Southeast. It would cause "economic hardship" to the company and "economic adulteration" for consumers because the new products would contain less protein and more moisture and fat, Castleberry argued in its comments on the proposal.

There are about 100 standards of identity issued by USDA for the content and preparation of meat, chicken and egg products. They cover such things as hot dogs -- a complicated standard that ensures you can't ever have a flat hot dog -- and lima beans in ham sauce.

The "beef or pork with barbecue sauce" standard at issue dates to 1952 and spells out how much meat is in the sauce and, until now, the extent to which the meat had to be cooked. The old rule required producers to use meat that was cooked to 70 percent of its original weight, a step that eliminated fat and moisture in the beef or pork that eventually was blended with sauce and then usually canned or frozen.

This picnic began in 1995 when the American Meat Institute asked that the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service to amend the standard, by eliminating the shrinkage requirement, to keep pace with what it described as new cooking methods and the leaner cuts of meat entering the product. It also wanted to level the playing field with products like "meat stews" and "beef with gravy and gravy with beef" (don't ask), which had no yield requirements in their standards of identity.

In its petition, the trade group said, "The standard does not reflect current production practices, nor does it reflect current commercial marketability of these products given the increased reliance on leaner beef and pork." It added that "the standard is based on an antiquated cooking standard that, in essence, holds any beef or pork product with barbecue sauce to the standards of barbecue meats."

The meat institute asked for a quick decision because, it said, the request would not be controversial. It cited support from the National Seasoning Manufacturers Association, which said the industry had to carefully control shrinkage to stay competitive. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and one other company also liked the idea.

The request languished for nine years before regulators at the USDA turned up the heat and issued a final rule on June 23. Many of the people involved in the initial round of commenting are retired, are at other jobs, or worked for companies which don't exist anymore. One attorney who worked on the issue couldn't locate the file with the pertinent materials.

Robert C. Post, director of the FSIS labeling and consumer protection staff, said the agency devotes most of its time to food safety issues and this was acted on when it came up in the regulatory queue. "This is to catch up with marketing and technology trends. A lot has changed," said Post, including the inclusion of nutritional information on products to inform consumers about levels of protein and fat in these frozen or canned products. He pointed out that manufacturers that wanted to use barbecue in their beef and pork with barbecue sauce could continue to do so, meeting the 70 percent shrink requirement.

Castleberry, however, not only remembers the issue, but feels just as strongly about it. "The key here is that for decades consumers have understood and expected a certain type of product in barbecue sauce. Consumers who purchase pork or beef in barbecue sauce won't get the same quality. There will be a lot of confusion," said David Melbourne, vice president of marketing.

What the company is predicting is that under the revised rule, the pork going into the sauce may not be the high quality barbecue that it uses. Instead of using more traditional cooking methods, companies will be able to use new technologies that produce yields, after cooking, of close to 100 percent of the raw product. This will allow the use of moist heat and parboiling a variety of cuts or it may encourage the use of cheaper "manufactured meat," binders and "extenders," Castleberry claims.

"It changes the types of meats that can be incorporated into these products," said Steve Dabbs, the company's director of research and development. He said the 70 percent requirement leveled the playing field among producers.

As Castleberry put it in its 1997 comments: "Pit-cooked barbecue meat with barbecue sauce is like the sterling name on silver."

In its final rule, FSIS disagreed that the change would result in economic adulteration of the product. It said that one important benefit for producers is that it will reduce meat costs -- the most expensive part of the product -- because 30 percent of the meat will not be cooked off. This should result in lower prices for consumers, the rule said.

James Hodges, an American Meat Institute official who worked on the issue, said there would be no noticeable change in the product, but several hundred manufacturers will have more flexibility in how they produce it. "I don't expect there will be a consumer uprising over this," he said.