E. K. FOX says his business goes up and down. Jaws, zippers and automotive lifts.

Fox is secretary-treasurer of the National Chewing Gum Association, executive director of the Slide Fasteners Association and president of the Automotive Lift Institute. When people think chewing gum, says Fox, they think, "Chewing gum! What's to it?" Fox thinks there's a lot to it.

There are those, says John McLaren of the now-defunct National Horseradish Packers Association, who can't believe the organization ever existed. Take the time it held its annual convention in Philadelphia. McLaren called the Hyatt to make a reservation for a conference room and accommodations. On the appointed date, member-packers and their spouses flew in from all over the country and piled into the hotel. "The guy at the desk looked at me in horror," McLaren said. Apparently the clerk who had taken the call for the convention reservation thought it was a prank and never wrote it down.

Then there was the time a horseradish packer appeared on "What's My Line?" Not even Arlene Francis could figure out what he did.

These are just two of the 15,000 American associations that represent the country's increasingly specialized interests. And the association business has become a big business itself--especially in Washington, as anyone who has ever flipped through a local phone directory knows. No wonder, then, there's an association of associations -- the American Society of Association Executives.

The food business is no different from the rest; there are organizations for everything. If the American Sunbathing Association can form as an official group, why not pimiento canners or shrimp breaders?

The American Meat Institute and the National Restaurant Association are familar and easily deciphered names, but the membership and functions of other food associations can be deceiving. And many may sound deceptively insignificant. Some are big industries that represent big interests. The Frozen Pizza Institute represents a $1 billion industry--Celeste, et. al.; the Cling Peach Advisory Board counts among its members over 1,100 growers and canners of the clingstone peach.

"They the associations sound funny, but they have a reason for being," said Frank Williams of the Frozen Onion Ring Packers Council.

Promotion is a big reason. Take, for example, pickles and sauerkraut. It took someone like Bill Moore, president of the Pickle Packers Association and the National Kraut Packers Association, to help increase the per capita pickle consumption from 2.3 pounds per person per year in 1930 to 9 pounds in 1981. Anyone who calls himself "Bill the Dill," has IBM make him a pickle key for his typewriter and sends the recipe book "Put Some Kraut in Your Life" to Prince Charles and Lady Diana as a wedding gift, will stop at nothing to promote the pickle or to push the kraut.

Moore's organization sells pickle paraphernalia and gives out an annual pickle award to those who have contributed the most to the pickle business (this year it went to two professors who developed a disease-resistant cucumber) and to individuals who have gotten themselves into the biggest pickle. One year they even located a descendant of the Earl of Sandwich and presented him with an award for his ancestor's work in helping to popularize the pickle's place on the plate.

But with giants like Heinz, Vlasic and Del Monte turning out some 26 billion pickles annually, Moore's association is a serious business. He says the association spends a lot of time "trying to make pickles better." That starts with funding agricultural research: trying to find ways to improve the seed (higher yield, stronger breeds), to shorten the fermentation period and to streamline the pickle harvester. Then, of course, there're pickle transportation and pickle sales to consider.

Other associations have more fundamental concerns. For instance, the International Natural Sausage Casing Association, according to executive secretary Lucille Lampman, was formed "to keep its share of the market from disappearing." Representing 206 manufacturers in 28 countries that process the intestines from pork, sheep or beef to make natural casings for bolognas, salamis, hot dogs and the like, the group competes with a Goliath of synthetic and reconstituted casings made from cellulose or collagen. The association's promotional material, not surprisingly, contends that natural means better. So one of their present projects is developing deli-meat stickers that distinguish the natural sausage casings from the artificial ones.

Then there are the research-oriented associations. The can which surrounds tuna fish, the Tuna Research Foundation has discovered, will decompose before the fish will. This item comes from the foundation's shelf-life findings, which estimate that the tuna could last up to 20 years.

Regulations involving sodium are an issue that associations are busy contending with these days. For the Potato Chip/Snack Food Association, it's a matter of disputing popular beliefs; for the Association of Sauces and Dressings, it's compiling a list of those companies conforming to voluntary sodium labeling.

Associations with overlapping interests frequently work with one another. Surprisingly enough, the Glutamate Association has little to do with the Chinese American Restaurant Association, but the Association for Dressings and Sauces exchanges information and coordinates merchandising techniques with produce groups like the Iceberg Lettuce Association. And since "a salad is not just lettuce and tomatoes anymore," Dressings and Sauces publishes a booklet for the food-service industry on how to set up a salad bar. The Tuna Research Foundation and The Tunaboat Association are jointly lobbying against the Reagan administration's Caribbean initiative, which would eliminate the tariffs on, among other goods, imported tuna.

Sometimes the interests of similiar associations can work against each other, as in the case of the horseradish growers versus the horseradish processors. In the early '60s, director McLaren was called to Washington to testify at a Commerce Department hearing--a hearing initiated by the horseradish growers. The year before, the U.S. horseradish crop was abysmal--the northern growers' plants were wiped out by a blight and farmers around St. Louis had to deal with a drought. Consequently all the processors bought roots from Japan that year. The growers were afraid the packers would import again from the Japanese, and they wanted tariff protection. But, according to McLaren, the issue faded because the Japanese root--more expensive and less desirable because of its dark skin--was never a significant threat.

Disagreement within an association can polarize the membership. One of the member industries in the Frozen Onion Ring Packers Council wanted the association to fund a research project to develop a rectangular onion that would be easier to slice. The proposal was voted down because many companies already had independent research under way, said executive director Williams. And a split has developed in the Frozen Pizza Institute between the companies that use natural-cheese toppings and those that use imitation-cheese products. The natural-cheese advocates want pizzas topped with the non-natural products to be labeled "imitation cheese" on the front of the package, not just on the ingredient panel.

When the need dies, so may the association. As urban development and less-labor-intensive crops began to take over the New Jersey farming counties of Gloucester and Salem, the 32,000 acres farmed by members of the New Jersey Asparagus Industry Council plummeted to 1,500. The Pie Filling Institute went out of business because its four member-manufacturers felt they could better use their membership money to compete rather than to cooperate.

In the land of abalone and hot tubs, the California Rare Fruit Growers--a hobbyist group of airline pilots, oil company executives and housewives who meet to discuss and to promote the growth of kiwis, cherimoyas, persimmons and seijoas--seem to be forming an industry. They publish a newsletter and drink kiwi wine together. And according to president Pat Sawyer, the "commercial marketplace is coming to us."

Brown dried fruits are well counseled, between the California Raisin Advisory Board and the California Dried Fig Advisory Board (not to mention the California Prune Board). Studying the future of vegetables is another reason to associate, thus the International Society for Mushroom Science and the Tomato Genetics Cooperative.

Then, of course, there's the Banana Bunch, Beans of the West, the Leafy Greens Council, the Washington & Idaho Pea & Lentil Commission, the South African Rock Lobster Service ...