The Department of Agriculture has issued a proposal that would permit processed meats such as bacon, ham, hot dogs, salami, etc. to be manufactured without sodium nitrite and still be labeled with their traditional names.

Currently these products must be called by such names as "uncured cooked sausage or uncured pork strips." The nitrite-free meats would have to carry a warning to highlight the fact that they are nitrite-free so that refrigeration is essential. The warning would say: "NO NITRITE OR NITRITE ADDED - NOT PRESERVED, MUST BE REFRIGERATED BELOW 40 DEGREES AT ALL TIMES."

The meat industry has maintained that processed meats cured without sodium nitrite may someday be responsbile for a person's death because nitrite-free processed meats are subject to spoilage from clostridium botulinum. Botulism is a deadly toxin that can be fatal.

Small manufacturers, however, have been curing bacon, hot dogs, hams and luncheon meats for years without nitrites; there have been no reported deaths in this country from nitrite-free meats. The meats are kept safe through refrigeration or freezing.

But 14 congressmen, fearful that nitrite-free products may cut into the market for meats cured with nitrites, have asked Agriculture Secretary Bergland to reverse the proposal rule on nitrite-free meats.

In a letter dated May 22, the congressmen said they haven't had any requests from their constituents, "whom we consider well-enlightened," for nitrite-free meats.

They said that the new regulation is "a dangerous proposal" and that if children take nitrite-free meats to school, keep them in a "warm school locker for hours on end," the children are subject to "potential disaster."

The congressmen want the nitrite-free meats to have different names: for example, "cold dogs" instead of hot dogs. They want the shape of the hot dogs changed too, from round to square.

The congressmen say that people will have both kinds of meat in their refrigerators at the same time.

By the beginning of June, 83 comments have been received by USDA on the proposed regulation. Most of them were from individual consumers, strongly supportive of USDA's action. Many commented that the proposal was "long overdue."

People who wish to comment on the Agriculture Department proposal may sent written comments until June 27 to: Hearing Clerk, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Room 1077, South Agriculture Building, Washington, D.C. 20250.

In the meantime nitrite-free products are available in some natural food stores. Nitrite-free bacon is being sold by Safeway though it does not have the same recognizable bacon flavor as the varieties sold at the Farm Woman's Market in Bethesda.

But USDA has tested six varieties of bacon sold as nitrite-free at the market and elsewhere and these are the results. Four stalls at the Farm Woman's Market are selling nitrite-free bacon: Harold Mullinex, who cures the bacon himself (you must order it ahead); Cox Family and Mrs. Harding, both of whom buy their bacon from Sappington; Berliners, whose bacon is produced by Leide.

Ledie bacon is available in some natural food stores and small groceries in the Washington area. Farm Product, distributed by Red Lion, is also nitrite-free, and is available at some natural food stores.