Each year Uncle Sam routinely spends billions of dollars for ghost-written reports, documents, studies or films produced by persons who are not on the big federal payroll. Those items are presented as government products. And it is virtually impossible for anybody outside of a small circle of officialdom to determine inhouse products from work done by outside consultants.

Although the government requires lists of ingredients on cereal boxes and frozen TV dinners, it does not tell the public what it is serving them, what it cost or who is responsible. That may change.

The Senate is working on a truth-in-packaging requirement that could be a real eye-opener. It would force government documents to carry a cover explanation listing names of nonfederal producers and price tags of the work.

The foot-in-the-door has been made by the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee dealing with foreign operations. Its jurisdiction covers everything from refugee relief to military assistance and international drug enforcement. Many documents, films and programs agencies use are produced on contract but the committee has never been able to determine the exact number or cost of those contracts.

To get a handle on who is doing what, and for how much, the committee has written a requirement that requires "documentation of external study costs." The new language -- which may be extended to other departments -- says:

"Each written or printed report, study, evaluation, plan, manual, presentation, publication, or other document prepared under the auspices of an agency for which funds are made available by this act, any portion of which is provided by other than full-time employes of such agency, shall reflect in the lower right-hand corner of the title page of such document a cost component which reflects the full cost to the government of such portion."

Copies of those documents, under the Senate requirement, would be sent to the General Accounting Office within 10 days of publication or release, and they would be kept on file -- available for study -- at GAO for five years.

Since the government requires cereal packages to list their insides, the least it can do is provide the same data for products it buys and markets under the Uncle Sam label.