It's said to be an aphrodisiac, and "a senior official" in the Justice Department arranged to have it smuggled into the White House.

Fewer than 75 people in Washington have ever seen it, this latest government secret, although leaks have been numerous. There have been headlines across the country, editorials, whispered conferences in White House corridors, knowing exchanges at Camp David.

Then came a showdown at the Justice Department last week when the attorney general finally laid to rest rampant rumors about rooster pepper sausage, a rare and mysterious southern Georgia pork delicacy.

It all began last June when Ed Bradley, CBS White House reporter, asked Griffin Bell about the sausage. The A. G., on his way to an important meeting in the White House, stopped to extol the virtues of his favourite sausage. A Newsweek reporter overheard the conversation, reported the exchanged, and the Justice Department was flooded with letters requesting the recipe.

At a breakfast in his private dinning room, Bell, the highest law enforcement official in the land, acknowledged that he and President Carter's friend Charles Kirbo had sucessfully conspired to sneak some of this now-famous sausge past the Secret Service, which confiscates all contraband food at the White House gate.

"About one pound, " confessed Bell - who prefers the title "Judge" to the official salutation "Attorney General." The president, he reported, did not "eat the whole thing," but has asked Kirbo to get some more.

Bell vehemently denied he ever claimed rooster pepper sausage had aphrodisiac powers. That rumor, he said , is the work of Hamilton Jordan's first cousin once removed, Robert H. Jordan, a Georgia State Supreme Court justice. What's more, bell had the document to prove it - a letter from Justice Jordan, dated Sept. 7 and written on Georgia Supreme Court letterhead:

"I am enclosing herewith samples of Rooster Pepper (comb) and Rooster Pepper (spur) solf to me by a gentleman at the Farmer's Market yesterday. He asserted that it was aknown aphrodeisiac, having a salutory effect on male and female alike. He stated that one of his friends drank a hot of ginseng root tea flavored with Rooster Pepper and remained completely virile until age 84."

Bell thinks that anything has special powers, it's the ginseng tea. His friend Kirbo, however, thinks there may be something to the story, and is having a label for the sausage prepared that depicts a red rooster chasing three hens. But Kirbo wants the Federal Trade Commission to take a look at it to be sure the picture isn't false advertising.

Bell further acknowledged that Kirbo was the one scouring the Georgia countryside for the essential ingredient, rooster pepper - or, to be specific, because there is significant difference, rooster spur pepper.

Rooster pepper is just a large red pepper much like a Bell (no relation). Rooster spur pepper is small and fiery. Not as hot as a jalapeno, Bell said, but still he wouldn't eat one whole.

According to the attorney general, the spur pepper is very scarce; even when it can be located, it's usually in some remote part of Georgia. Bell said the reason there was no rooster pepper sausage at the breakfast was because "Kirbo has let his fight with Jack Anderson get in the way."

The press had been suspicious of the sausage stories from the start. And when Alabama-born and Georgia-bred Jack Nelson, bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, got wind of the rooster pepper rumor, he laid down a challenge. Nelson and his wife, Barbara Matusow, were having a southern pot-luck party. You had to be southern and bring a southern dish in order to get through the front door. The attorney general and his wife, Mary, were invited - on the condition that they bring the elusive sausage.

Terry Adamson, special assistant to the attorney general and director of the office of public information, picked up the story:

"The judge was a little nervots about this, but he gave the job to Kirbo. At lunch one day Kirbo had to inform the judge that his source of rooster pepper sausage had died. The judge," Adamson said, "had never seemed as crestfallen since David Marston decided to leave the Justice Department."

But all was not lost:

Adamson continued: "Kirbo thought he knew where the widow of the rooster-pepper sausage-maker was. The judge didn't think that was good enough, relieved Kirbo of his responsibility, and turned it over to a man he knew he could trust completely, Justice Jordan." And the Justice came through.

According to the letter of Sept.7, Justice Jordan "delivered the pepers to Mr. Williams at Haralson" who made a"a sample batch of 20 pounds."

Difficult as it was to find the rooster peppers, the country's top law enforcement official contends it was even harder to get the sausage to Washington.

"It cost more to bring it here than to have it made," Bell complained. "I thought about having the FBI bring it up, but I abandoned that idea. There would have been three congressional investigations." He finally had it shipped air express.

Bell refused to divulge the cost of the sausage, claiming it might "upset the president's guideliness. I couldn't tell you how much it cost; it might run the price up."

And so it was on the might of Sept. 16, at Jack Nelson's pot-luck party, that about 25 southern newspeople and government officials plus their assorted mates and dates saw, smelled and finally tasted rooster pepper sausage made from William's recipe No.1. But no one has yet been privileged to eat rooster pepper sausaged made from William's recipe No.2.

Again, quoting from Justice Jordan's letter of Sept. 13: "His recipe No.2, a more exotic and salubrious mixture, contains an unspecified amount of meat from the drumstick of a Rhode Island Red Rooster. The combination of rooster meat with rooster pepper is said to give an exquisite taste to the pork sausage."

Bell was willing to give a few more details. "Every 10 pounds of William's No.2 is made with one right leg of a Rhode Island Red Rooster - no skin or bone, just dark meat."

In the end, the recipe for rooster pepper sausage remains elusive. The attorney general refuses to share it, even though he promised an end to unnecessary government secrecy. His selfishness prompted an angry editorial in The Arizona Republic, entitled "Bell Goes Too Far."

"It is one thing for the attorney general to defy the federal court order to hand over names of the FBI's informants within the Socialist Workers Party," the editorial said. "It is quite another for him to refuse to disclose the recipe for rooster pepper sausage."

Speculation over whether or not the recipe might be subject to a Freedom of Information Act request seems moot for the moment. The attorney general is having a terrible time finding the rooster spur peppers. According to one of Bell's aides at the sausageless breakfast, "There's a rumor that people are hoarding it like Confederate money. They think it will come back."

Bell is afraid that if he advertises for some peppers in Georgia, "first thing you know, I'd end up with an imposter recipe. And if I worked with the FDA (to see if it really contained rooster peppers) they'd probably find it cause cancer. If not, it'd be the first thing that didn't.

"But I think I got a line on some," Bell admitted. "Otherwise, I might try growing some of my own."

Then the attorney general got up from the breakfast table and sighed with the knowledge that he could no longer pretend the problem would go away. "Once I got Jefferson Davis pardoned I thought I finished my work in Washington, but. . . "