The University of Texas has been struggling to extricate itself from an unholy row with the United States cereals industry. The subject: rat droppings.
The public affairs department of the university's Austin campus put out a notice that began: "Everyone who eats breakfast cereal has swallowed his or her share of rat droppings." Biochemist Barrie Kitto had devised a new way of testing for rodent excreta, it announced.
The story was picked up by the Houston Chronicle. "Next time you think it's two scoops of raisins you're getting in your morning bowl of cereal, you might want to think twice," the newspaper claimed in a page one story reprinted from Montreal to Memphis.
"Fact is, rats and other rodents answer nature's call whenever they please, and they often do so in a grain silo," Dr Kitto was quoted as saying. "The end result is a certain amount of rat poop in the bran."
The result, however, was a furious response from lawyers and lobbyists for the massive American cereals industry. Reliable tests have existed for years, they insisted. By the week's end the university was rapidly back pedalling from what appeared a false alarm. It issued a retraction to the effect that Dr Kitto had found "no indication" of cereal contamination.