It's an irrepressible, fun-loving bunch over there at the Agriculture Department's information office, but my, oh my, what a blush their mirth has brought to USDA's collective face.

Just for the fun of it, one of the department's wordsmiths prepared a phony press release to be read last month at a farewell party for John M. McClung, who quit as head of information to take a trade association job.

The page-long "press release" focused on the thoughts and career of David R. Lane, who was chosen by Secretary Richard E. Lyng to succeed McClung. The new director was quoted at length, complete with expletives and innuendo hardly suited for a family newspaper, let alone an official document.

Among the palatable things, Lane, described as a prominent ferret breeder, purportedly said his new job would be "a lot like raising ferrets. Government public affairs employes are known for their ability to weasle through tight spots and they'll often turn around and bite the hell out of you."

Lane also was quoted to the effect that he planned to rewrite job-evaluation criteria. "Too many employes take this {expletive} seriously. I'm gonna make the new criteria so unintelligible they'll think they're reading an administration position paper on farm policy."

Then the laughing stopped. Somehow the fake press release was sent to the print shop, where the presses cranked away to a fare-thee-well. And then the releases, looking as official as any release ever looked, went into the mails and out across the country.

The phone of Dave Warren, chief of the news division, starting ringing and hasn't stopped yet.

"I've had less than 20 calls but more than a dozen from people who wanted to know what was going on," Warren said. "In a worst-case scenario, I calculate that about 230 names may have received the release."

On Monday, under the official imprimatur of USDA, Warren sent out another release titled "Notice to Correspondents." For those who might have missed it the first time around, the fake press release was described and disavowed in this week's publication.

"A paper resembling a USDA news release, which was prepared as a humorous item for internal use only, was inadvertently included in some mailings of USDA releases around Dec. 3," Warren wrote. "Because this paper was meant to be humorous, it contains many factual errors.

"We regret whatever outside distribution this erroneous item received and have taken steps to prevent any recurrence," Warren said.

He added yesterday that he had "made it clear to the staff that we are never ever going to do this again, especially on official paper."

Did Warren ponder the meaning, if any, of the fact that the bogus bulletin provoked fewer than 20 phone queries?

Yes, he did, and he thinks that it cut two ways.

"It shows that either people don't read our releases or that not every one of the 230 got them," he said.