By Candy Arthur
November 28, 1977 12:00 PM

For a woman who once lobbied for Planned Parenthood in maternity clothes, it seemed a fitting irony. Carol Foreman’s reception after her swearing-in as Assistant Secretary of the Department of Agriculture took place in the same room where just a year earlier she had led a protest against department policies. Then she was wearing a gag to symbolize consumers’ lack of input in USDA decision-making. These days, as the second woman—and first consumer advocate ever—to become an Assistant Secretary at Agriculture, Foreman is anything but mute. “Consumers have not been just ignored by this department,” she says. “They’ve been really abused.”

With jurisdiction over $9 billion of the department’s $14 billion budget, Foreman, 39, controls such massive operations as the food stamp program, school lunches and breakfasts and meat and poultry inspection, which includes the regulation of some food additives. Most recently she has been overseeing a streamlining of the food stamp program, which will go into effect mid-1978. It is designed to reduce fraud and red tape. Two weeks ago she began a campaign of pressure against meat processors that eventually, she hopes, will persuade them to stop using nitrates and nitrites as preservatives in some bacon. These chemicals combine with amines to form nitrosamines, compounds suspected of causing cancer.

She claims such advocacy is a dramatic change from the department’s recent past. “Earl Butz tried to discredit the food stamp program rather than administer it,” she says, “and he figured that the best way to keep farmers from thinking about how badly they were doing was to get them mad at consumers.” She insists (as the White House does) that the interests of the consumer and the nation’s hard-pressed family farmers have more in common than in conflict. “The previous administration thought family farms had become obsolete,” she says. “But [Agriculture Secretary Bob] Bergland and President Carter were family farmers, so obviously this Administration does care about them.”

Foreman was born to politics, the daughter of an Arkansas state treasurer. Her brother is freshman Democratic Rep. Jim Guy Tucker. After graduation from Washington University in St. Louis, she went to American University for graduate work in government—and stayed in Washington, working on congressional staffs, lobbying and eventually becoming executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.

Her nomination to the USDA post was nearly snagged by the Senate Agriculture Committee, which worried that she was in bed, so to speak, with organized labor. Her husband, Jay, whom she married in 1964, is vice-president of the Retail Clerks International Association. Foreman says she would disqualify herself in case of any conflict, and her critics need not have feared a zealot. She won’t have sugar-coated cereals in the house, is trying to eliminate junk food from school lunches and buys nitrate-free bacon from a farmers’ market near her suburban Maryland home. Still, she often happily settles at the end of her chronic 11-hour days for a cheeseburger and a beer—a fact that prompts her to reflect on the historic shortcomings of her department. “We know how to feed dairy cows to produce milk,” she says, “but we don’t know exactly how to feed humans to keep them healthy.”