FRANK PERDUE came to town last week with 30,000 hot dogs in tow. The hot dogs were, of course, made of chicken, and Frank Perdue was, of course, the star attraction, selling his new chicken franks for a paltry 25 cents each to hungry bargain hunters and curiosity seekers. A dozen old-fashioned hot dog carts, staffed by vendors wearing rubberized Frank Perdue masks, joined the real Frank at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW for the debut of the Perdue chicken dog.

Poultry hot dogs are not new. But Perdue's decision to enter the market reflects the growing popularity of these products. "Poultry franks are the fastest growing category in the meat case today," says Donald W. Mabe, president of Perdue Farms Inc. In l977, poultry hot dog sales accounted for 3.2 percent of the hot dog market. In l982, they made up almost 13 percent of the 926 million pounds of hot dogs sold, according to Barbara Schuelke of Louis Rich Inc., the nation's largest turkey processor. And since l979, says Schuelke, almost all the growth in the hot dog market has been due to skyrocketing poultry frank sales.

Bill Roenigk of the National Broiler Council, a trade group of poultry producers and processors, cites two reasons for the growth: nutrition and economics. Poultry franks are usually lower in fat than hot dogs made from red meat, with a fat content ranging from 20 to 25 percent, depending on the brand. Most red meat hot dogs have a 30 percent fat content, which is the limit for fat in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's standard for red meat cooked sausages. (The USDA has never set a fat limit for poultry hot dogs.) Processors who make poultry franks with a lower fat content than red meat hot dogs aggressively promote this fact.

Poultry hot dogs usually are cheaper than frankfurters made from pork or beef. Not only is poultry much less expensive than red meat, but poultry processors can use 100 percent mechanically deboned poultry in their hot dogs under current USDA regulations, while red meat hot dog producers are limited to a mechanically deboned meat content of 20 percent in their products. Like other poultry hot dog producers, Perdue is using mechanically deboned chicken in its new chicken hot dog, according to Mabe. Both mechanically deboned meat and poultry are substantially less expensive to produce than the hand deboned variety.

Mechanically deboned poultry is manufactured from the necks, backs and breast and rib cages of chickens and turkeys. The bone and attached skeletal meat are mashed together and pushed under high pressure through machines with sieve-like openings that separate out most of the bone. Current USDA rules allow up to one percent of the bone to remain in mechanically deboned poultry. The paste-like product contains not only bone, but bone marrow and minerals found in bone such as fluoride and calcium. It also has nearly twice the cholesterol content--about 140 milligrams per 100 gram serving-- of hand deboned poultry because of the bone marrow and skin.

Consumers ordinarily are unaware of which processed poultry products contain mechanically deboned poultry because it does not have to be listed on the label. Under current rules, if a product with mechanically deboned poultry also contains poultry skin and organs "in natural proportions" to the poultry meat, it is listed as "chicken" or "turkey" in the ingredient listing. If a product with mechanically deboned poultry contains no skin or organ meat, the ingredient listing states "chicken meat" or "turkey meat."

Mechanically deboned red meat, on the other hand, must be listed as "mechanically separated (pork or beef) product" in the ingredient statement of products in which it is used. (This is the name USDA decided would most accurately describe the product to consumers.) In addition, processors must list calcium content on the product label if the content is higher than would be expected if only hand deboned meat were used.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, in a report last month complained about the disparity in regulatory treatment of mechanically deboned poultry and red meat, pointing out that some of the same concerns that propelled USDA to restrict mechanically deboned meat usage also are present with mechanically deboned poultry. For example, the GAO pointed out, calcium levels in poultry products such as hot dogs and bologna that use 100 percent mechanically deboned poultry can be nearly twice as high as similar meat products containing mechanically deboned meat at the maximum permissable 20 percent level. The USDA required the calcium content declaration on red meat products with mechanically deboned meat so that persons on calcium-restricted diets would be aware of the higher levels. No calcium labeling is required on poultry franks or bologna.

The GAO also expressed concern about the higher cholesterol content of mechanically deboned poultry. A 1979 USDA health study concluded that products with mechanically deboned poultry need to be labeled because persons who must restrict their cholesterol intake often replace meat with poultry. While the study said the extra cholesterol consumption from the products on a per capita basis was negligible, it noted that the higher levels could pose problems for persons with a hereditary condition called "familial Type II hypercholesterolemia." Persons with this condition have excess cholesterol in their blood and must restrict their cholesterol intake.

The USDA's 1979 health study also recommended that mechanically deboned poultry made from mature fowl be prohibited in baby foods because of possible high fluoride levels. The fluoride content of fowl bones can be high because the hens are older when slaughtered and have had more time to collect the fluoride in their bones. The study noted a lack of information about fluoride intakes of infants in high-fluoride areas. Too much fluoride for infants can cause mottling or spotting of the enamel of permanent teeth while they are being formed. The USDA prohibited use of mechanically deboned meat in baby foods because of this concern. A USDA food technologist reported to the GAO that two of the three baby food producers were using mechanically deboned fowl.

Consumer advocate Thomas Smith, of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, is a longtime foe of mechanically deboned meat and has been involved in a series of lawsuits to prevent the USDA from allowing it on the market. In l979, when he was a member of another consumer group, the Community Nutrition Institute, Smith said he pointed out the inconsistencies in the USDA's treatment of mechanically deboned meat and poultry to USDA officials and asked them to do something about it. He was told, and has been told repeatedly, he said, that the problem would be reviewed after the department completed work on the mechanically deboned meat regulations. The last time he asked, he was told that action would be initiated after litigation over the meat rules was completed. "It's just been a lot of hot air," Smith complained. "Their track record is that they don't want to do anything."

Smith is especially concerned about the lack of labeling on products containing mechanically deboned poultry. Poultry hot dogs "can have as much cholesterol or more than red meat hot dogs," he noted, "and yet the labeling says 'lower in fat.' " This "is a deception problem and a potential health problem," Smith alleged, because the low fat claim takes advantage of people's perceptions that fat and cholesterol are synonymous. Thus, Smith reasons, people see the low fat claim and think the product is also lower in cholesterol.

The National Broiler Council will oppose USDA efforts to regulate mechanically deboned poultry. The council's Kerri Wagner says mechanically deboned poultry has been used safely for 20 years. "It has come to be accepted widely by consumers and no one has had a problem," she maintains. Donald Mabe of Perdue Farms doesn't see the USDA coming forward with regulations "because there's nothing wrong with mechanically deboned poultry." But, he adds, there's no doubt "the meat people would like to see it."

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service has told the GAO it plans to review the status of mechanically deboned poultry and has begun preparations for further rulemaking. However, Safety and Inspection Administrator Donald Houston told GAO officials that requirements for mechanically deboned poultry and those already established for mechanically deboned meat may not be the same since they are "different products with different properties." One difference that will probably remain: The USDA is unlikely to cut back from the 100 percent level the amount of mechanically deboned poultry that can be used in a processed poultry product, as it has done with mechanically deboned meat. For one thing, the USDA health study concluded that mechanically deboned poultry at the 100 percent level was a safe product with the recommended labeling requirements. For another, a cutback in the amount of mechanically deboned poultry that presently can be used would jar the stable and growing poultry hot dog market, something the USDA would be reluctant to do in these antiregulatory times.

As the USDA has held off regulating mechanically deboned poultry, the market continues to expand. In the mid-'70s, about 100 million pounds were produced. Today that figure is estimated to be well over 400 million, according to Roenigk, and the number of products in which it is used is also growing. Poultry products such as pot pies, chow mein, chop suey, croquettes, breast filet patties, deviled chicken and chicken hash contain varying amounts of mechanically deboned poultry. But until the USDA requires ingredient listing of mechanically deboned poultry, exactly which companies are using it and which products it can be found in will remain a mystery to consumers.