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False Alarm on Tainted Cereals Has School Eating Its Own Words

November 7, 1995

A recent news release from the University of Texas gave cereal eaters something to chew on. ``Everyone who eats breakfast cereal has swallowed his or her share of rat droppings,″ it said.

It then offered a solution: UT biochemist Barrie Kitto ``has developed a test to detect the presence of rodent excreta in grain products and other foods.″

The news release was picked up by the Associated Press and at least six big-city newspapers. A front-page Houston Chronicle article began: ``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.″

Not surprisingly, cereal makers are chafing. Their scientists, such as Elwood Caldwell of the American Association of Cereal Chemists, refute any suggestion that current grain-testing measures are inadequate.

As it turns out, the alarm was false. Rat droppings aren’t in cereals because reliable ways of testing grain have existed for years. Indeed, Dr. Kitto concedes his invention would merely lower the cost and speed up the process of testing the cleanliness of grain.

So why the scary news release? University officials have engaged in a bit of finger pointing on the matter. Although Dr. Kitto approved the release, he says he saw only an early draft that didn’t play up breakfast-cereal contamination. The executive in charge of the university office of public affairs, Peggy Kruger, blames it on the writer, saying, ``He may have been having a bit of fun with it.″ For his part, the writer, Robert Tindol, has referred all calls to Dr. Kitto.

The fiasco is embarrassing to some scientists at the Austin-based university. ``Whoever wrote this was trying to be cutesy-wootsy, and it’s not a cutesy-wootsy issue,″ says Sanford A. Miller, dean of the university’s Health-Science Center in San Antonio.

The cereal industry’s attorneys and lobbyists demanded a public retraction. ``Each cereal maker has its own standards that exceed what is required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,″ says Jeff Nedelman of the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

The university on Friday obliged, sending out a retraction, conceding that Dr. Kitto had found ``no indication of rodent fecal contamination″ of breakfast cereal.

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