For some years a small number of our fellow citizens have refused to eat bacon, ham, hot dogs and a variety of luncheon meats. They understood something the rest of us have been ignorant of: The nitrate chemicals put into these products can either through certain cooking processes or by mixture with other chemicals in your body, form cancer-causing nitrosamines. Cigarette smokers, for example, were warned, albeit in a very soft voice, that butts and bacon will send you straight to the cemetery.

Although these health harzards have been known for a long time, the Department of Agriculture diddled and fiddled over the danger and, according to some small meat processors, made it as tough as possible to distribute these kinds of meats without putting nitrites in them. For those who like to eat - a category which includes most everybody but Dick Gregory - the only safe policy was to avoid those kinds of foods entirely. Sometimes hams are sold as nitrite-free at a premium price in farmers' markets and such, but you can get swindled on that. Washington recently had a minor scandal when it was discovered that those old time, farm-pure hams and bacon were loaded with nitrites.

Now there is more bad news. For the first time we have test results showing that nitrites cause cancer by themselves, without combining with other chemicals. Under the law, these new test results on laboratory animals should force the Department of Agriculture to prohibit the use of nitrites, but Carol Tucker Foreman, undersecretary for such matters, says no, that's too fast.

For some years before joining the government, Foreman was a leading consumer spokesperson, so her performance on this occasion is disappointing. Her position is that the nitrites should be passed out gradually, since, in addition to giving these products their unnatural red color, they retard spoilage in unrefrigerated meats.

In other words, we have a shelf-life problem, a merchandising difficulty. Without nitrites, it would be much more difficult for the great packeers to manufacture those enormous varieties of sausages and luncheon meats and ship them every which way to supermarkets that often display them at near room temperature.

More careful refrigeration would be required and freshness would not only be a quality advertised for taste but for safety. Instead of manufacturing hot dogs in Omaha and distributing them nationally, we might have to go back to supply system of our great-grandparents' time, when meat was raised, slaughtered, dressed and processed in the region where it was consumed. No national brands, but smaller businesses instead.

But this too, can pose problems. Back at the turn of the century when local meat processing still abounded, it was the smaller plants which had the worst sanitary problems. The large packing companies, referred to in those days as the meat trust, wanted to protect the reputation of American meat and so they favored federal inspection and, alas, putting nitrites in the food.

Small may also mean higher labor costs, but whatever it means, the decision to forbid such preservatives would be a threat to large, centralized food manufacturers. And not just in bacon. The emergence of national brands of premium beer was also made possible by the use of preservatives. The reason the Denver-based Coors company has resisted national distribution wasn't an aversion to money, but the belief that their preservative-free beer wouldn't travel transcontinetal distances.

A bill has already been introduced in the House to take away the executive branch's power to ban nitrites from the food supply. If that should pass, Congress might then consider a special cancer tax to be levied on manufacturers who use the chemical. The proceeds could be used to help defray medical costs of cancer victims.

It's a bizarre proposal, but if we're not going to educate the public in the dangers of specific chemicals in specific foods and we're not going to ban them, the least a civilized community can do is succor the dying. Or forget it all. Grab a carton of those low-hazard cigarettes, climb into a Ford Pinto equipped with Firestone 500's and take the family on a nitrite-filled wienie roast. There's too damn much government inteference anyway.