Assistant Secretary C.W. MacMillan, the man in charge of making sure meat and poultry supplies are safe, addressed a number of consumer issues affecting his department these days.

Of the administration's policy on food safety, he said, "We haven't got one as yet." A "working group" on food safety, comprised of MacMillan, officials from the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies, is discussing "such things as the Hatch Bill" (which addresses food additives and redefines the term "safety"). This "working group," said MacMillan, is "just weeks away" from presenting its views to the cabinet council. "Then the administration's position will be well known . . . " he said.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service also would like to introduce a program of "less than continuous inspection" of meat processing plants. Under this plan, processors with an exemplary inspection record would be relieved of the continuous presence of federal inspectors. This move would save USDA an estimated $2 million the first year and $40 million after other processors have been phased into the program. The secretary of Agriculture would be responsible for deciding which plants would qualify for this exemption.

What happens, asked one consumer advocate, when the Office of Management and Budget begins to pressure the USDA to spend even less money? Then, this decision "becomes a very difficult thing for the secretary." Ostensibly, those who deal with the budget could put pressure on the secretary to find more plants that can qualify for sporadic inspections. There are no provisions in the current proposal protecting consumers against this possibility.

MacMillan calls this "a valid point" but says federal regulations could provide some further protection.

On matters of sodium labeling, the assistant secretary said he had "faith that the meat and poultry industry will, in fact, probably voluntarily, provide sodium labeling ."

As an example, he said, Oscar Mayer has indicated that it will add sodium labeling to 45 percent of its products. Since all labels for meat and poultry products must be approved, he said, the department can monitor the move toward voluntary sodium labeling throughout the industry. On the other hand, the department has no specific goals for sodium labeling.