"People expect a consumer advocate to be some hysterical lady out of a supermarket - but one thing all Carter's 'consumer types' have in common: we know an awful lot about how government operates and how to work within it. When it's screwing you all the time, you learn."

So says Carol Tucker Foreman, former lobbyist and consumer advocate, how one of the most visible and vocal of those many leaders in the environmental, consumer and public advocacy movements who have moved inside to top government positions.

As assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services, Foreman, 38, has one of the major regulatory and policymaking jobs in the directs programs that spend $12.8 billion annually on food for domestic Carter administration. One of the regulations on the way food is produced, processed, inspected and sold.

She is now moving on such controversial issues as whether to ban sodium nitrite and to stiffen meat grading and inspection standards. She has ordered school breakfast programs to eliminate fortified but highly sugared Twinkies cupcakes.

In her past role as head of the Consumer Federation of America, Foreman did not ignore the dramatic. Once, when Earl Butz was Agriculture Secretary, she marched with other an advisory panel and all wore gags to demonstrate their lack of voice in USDA deliberations. But she was basically viewed as a tough, pragmatic strategist who juggled diverse factions, diplomatically lobbied her causes, and carefully picked her fights.

Today, she still operates in that mold and has managed so far to keep most of her old consumer friends happy while also muting the farmers, cattlemen, meat packers and big food companies who vigorously opposed her appointment.

Most groups don't want to get into a headline-screaming fight with an assistant secretary of agriculture, she reasons. "It's terrible to be in a position where your enemies are afraid of you."

However, the honeymoon is coming a crashing end with the meat and poultry industry spokesmen, who attack Foreman's latest proposed regulations.

"She shoots first and thinks later," lasts Robert L. Medeira of the American Association of Meat Processors. She seems more concerned with making a name among her consumer constituency than in protecting the public in a fair, rational way."

The meat and poultry industries are fighting Foreman for pushing the explosive nitrite and nitrate issue, which lay dormant in the last administration. Nitrites can combine with other substances called amines to form a carcinogen called nitrosamines.

Last Month, USDA told bacon manufacturers they had until March 16 to prove that the use of nitrates and nitrites does not produce cancer-causing nitrosamines during ordinary processing or kitchen preparation of bacon. According to some current testing data, bacon forms nitrosamines when fried.

Manufacturers of canned, cured and processed meats like hot dogs, ham, alami, bologna and turkey must provide similar proof within a two-year period. If the proof is not provide, the USDA could move to ban the use of sodium nitrite.

Richard Lyng, director of the American Meat Institute, finds the USDA posture "impossible." He complains, as do other industry spokesmen, that sodium nitrite is necessary to inhibit the possibility of botulism. Consumer advocate specialists say this is a scare tactic and that alternatives can be found.

"They have an obligation to put out a product that is neither carcinogenic or gives people botulism," she says. "I am confident they can find a way to block nitrosamine formation. Some already are producing bacon without nitrite - but it does have a shorter shelf life."

Meat companies counter that the nitrite scare is similar to the saccharin battle. "You'd have to eat 15,000 pounds of bacon a day for the rest of your life to et the same amount that tested rats were subjected to," says Harry Backer of Oscar Meyer Co.

Howver, Robert Harris, assistant director of the toxichemicals program at the Environmental Defense Fund, says. "The nitrosamines found in bacon are about 20,000 times as potent as saccharin, comparing animal studies. It is a really incredibly potent carcinogen."

On another front, meat and poultry people are livid about Foreman's proposed regulation on the "mechanical deboning" meat process. Some $20 million in deboning machines are idle since a suit was brought preventing their use.

Foreman proposes that companies can use up to 20 per cent of deboned meat in a product. They would, however, have to label it "issue from ground bones," rather than "mechanically deboned" meat - and in letters at least half as high as the product's name.

"That's crazy," says Lyng. "We're going to fight that hard. We view that as a deliberate attempt to persuade consumers not to buy the product. The consumer wouldn't buy the product with such labeling." A spokesman for the National Broiler Council estimates they would lose $6 million annually if people stopped buying such products. Lynd said, "She's destroyed the confidence of the meat industry in the Department of Agriculture."

A third battle front is expected soon. Foreman said she intends to propose regulations for tough inspection to reduce bribery and extortion in the meat grading business. She will propose, in part, that if a piece of beef is not choice enough to be given a grade, it be stamped "no grade." Now such a carcass is simply not marked. Lyng says. "We'd probably go to court on that."

So far, such dissatisfaction has not been generated among farmers and cattlemen.

She recently told a group of Montana cattlemen, "I'd love to tell you your market's going to get better and better, but I'd be lying to you." The men nodded. "We appreciate her not soft-soaping us," said one.

She woos the farmer by saying she has always been for price supports. She pits the farmer and consumer against middlemen profits in her "ugly" speech, as she dubbed it. "Advertising makes up 3 per cent of the nation's food bill and packaging 13 per cent of the food marketing bill in 1976," she states. "Does it really make any difference if potato chips come in waxed bags instead of tennis ball cans" she asks her audiences. She hits the millions spent on television ads for such "delicacies as Kaboom and Count Chocula."

It wins her no points with the giant food companies. One spokesman testily said an economist "from her very own Agriculture Department" testified that for the first time in history labor costs accounted for a larger part of consumer grocery bills than the basic farm price of food. "She should examine that. We would hope she will not use her position to simply gain credence for a personal point of view," he said.

Agribusinesses have complained to the White House, but Foreman says Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland gives her "vigorous support." "In Butz' adminstration" - here she laughs at the thought - "I'd be trimming all the time."

The Carter administration has provided new berths for people like Foreman and other public advocacy graduates - just as "Kennedy had his Harvard professors and Nixon and Ford had their businessmen," Foreman said.

Now, those who used to sue the government are running it. Among the public advocacy alumni is Harrison Wellford, the Office of Management and Budget's reorganization man. As a Ralph Nader aide, Welford sued the Environmental Protection Agency and USDA - fighting pesticides and nitrites.

At Health, Education and Welfare is Peter Shucks, deputy assistant secretary for policy planning and evaluation. As director of the Consumers Union legal office. Shuck sued everybody - Food and Drug Administration. USDA and HEW, challenging the allocation of HEW funds for hospitals. At transportation is Joan Claybrook, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a former Nader raider. Conservationist Dr. Rupert Cutler is now in charge of the forest industry as USDA's assistant secretary for conservation.

Nader is critical of the public advocacy fighters who have crossed over. He feels they have moved too slowly in government, contends they are not keeping up their ties with public advocacy groups, are "being eaten up by the daily details" of bureaucracy and not making bold attacks a governmental and corporate abuses.

Consumer "insiders" admit frustration with entrenched bureaucratic civil servants and red tape - but the general response is that the perspective changes drastically from within."Dramatic change is almost impossible. In the complex world of bureaucracy it takes a great deal of time to move to short distance," Shuck said.

Wellford and Foreman said one reason the administration may appear to move slowly is that they are doing exactly what public advocacy spokesmen urge - taking the time to hear various interest groups. Wellford calls this participation a "bottoms up" approach to decision-making. For example, Wellford talked to 40 conservation groups about efforts to streamline the natural resources agency. As an outside crusader, one acts as a lawyer and argues a one-sided point of view; on the inside you have to act as a judge, consider the consequences and how to get things implemented, he said.

Foreman feels she is better able to bring change in her new job than on the outside. "We'd been fighting the food stamp purchase requirement for 10 years - and in six months here we get that through Congress. As a consumer advocate I tried to get percentage labeling for years. In this office, I got it almost immediately for much that is bought in this country." She used the "enormous purchasing power" of USDA to require percentage ingredient labeling on products for the domestic programs that feed more than 53 million people.

Foreman makes trade-offs and feels if you want money for one thing, you have to cut elsewhere to get it through Congress. To bring in more than 3 million of the most needy into the food stamp program, for example, 1 1/2 million recipients at the highest level were cut.

The daughter and granddaughter of Arkansas politicians, Foreman is the "toughest politician in the family," according to her brother, Rep. Jim Guy Tucker Jr. (D-Ark.). Foreman disarms by cracking jokes in an Arkansas twang. Her sentences contain enough profanity to give credence to tomboy past: she was a no-nosense pitcher on a kid's softball team.

When Foreman put a vegetarian on a panel to study nitrites, a meat trade publication referred to her as a leading "guerrilla" among agriculture's new breed. It amused her, but she sees her role as helping the food people adjust to change.