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People have received the mysterious shipments in at least 22 states. The seeds could pose threats to the environment and agriculture. Federal authorities are investigating.
Hundreds of packages of unsolicited plant seeds that appear to have been shipped from China and other countries have been delivered by mail in recent days to people in nearly two dozen states, posing potential risks to the environment and agriculture.
If the seeds are for invasive or noxious plant species, it’s possible that they could displace or destroy native plants, damage crops, or harm insects, livestock or wild animals.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, says it is working closely with Customs and Border Protection, other federal agencies, and state departments of agriculture to investigate the situation.
USDA said late Wednesday night that people in at least 22 states, Canada, Australia and the European Union had received suspicious seed shipments. APHIS says it is attempting to collect the seed packages and would test their contents.
"The main concern is that, the potential for these seeds to introduce pests and diseases that could be harmful to U.S. agriculture and the environment," Osama El-Lissy, deputy administrator for APHIS’ plant protection and quarantine program, said in a recorded statement that USDA issued Wednesday night.
There's no indication at this point that the seeds are hazardous.
So far, El-Lissy said that APHIS had identified 14 different species of seeds. The seeds he listed are for plants many American gardeners are likely familiar with—like cabbage, morning glory, roses, hibiscus and herbs like mint, sage, rosemary and lavender. But El-Lissy said these tested seeds are just a subset of the samples APHIS has collected.
People who receive the seeds are urged to keep them sealed up in their packets or in a plastic bag, hold onto them and the packaging they came in, and to contact their state’s plant regulatory official or APHIS.
APHIS says that at this time there are no signs that the seed shipments are anything other than what’s known as a “brushing scam,” where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews online to boost sales.
Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Utah and Washington are among the states where there have been reports of the seed shipments since last week.
"If you have received one of these packages in the mail, please use extreme caution by not touching the contents and securing the package in a plastic bag,” Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black warned in a statement this week.
Denise Thiede, who runs the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s seed program, said the agency has received over 400 reports of the seed deliveries, beginning over the weekend.
They are taking the mysterious packages seriously.
“In Minnesota our worst weeds are weeds that were introduced,” Thiede told Route Fifty. “We just don’t want seeds coming in that we have no idea what they are, and then having them get planted, that is like the worst case scenario,” she added.
Thiede explained that USDA—not the state agriculture department—has lead jurisdiction over the situation. Federal authorities held a call on Wednesday morning to provide state officials with an update, she said, and they asked state agencies to collect the seed shipments.
Minnesota’s agriculture department has collected roughly 20 packages of the seeds, but has not inspected them yet. Thiede said that USDA currently says it will handle the identification and destruction of the seeds. “I don’t think they’re prepared for the volume,” she said.
Thiede added that Minnesota's agriculture department is hoping that it can have some of its seed experts work on identifying the seeds.
For now, the state’s role primarily involves communicating to the public how they should handle the seeds if they receive them in the mail, collecting the packages and forwarding them to USDA.
Karla Salp, a spokesperson for the Washington state Department of Agriculture, said on Wednesday that the state had received reports of the unsolicited seed deliveries through social media, emails and phone calls and didn’t have an exact count of how many had come in.
“I can safely say we’ve received hundreds of reports,” she said in an email.
The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries said Tuesday that it had set up an online reporting system for state residents who received suspicious seeds they did not order.
Salp said many of the packages in Washington have been marked with “China Post.”
Packages arriving in other states have the same marking, or Chinese return addresses, based on photos agencies have posted online. But packages appear to be coming from other countries as well. Photos of Alabama and Minnesota shipments show Kyrgyzstan return addresses. Some of the packages are labeled as if they contain jewelry.
National Association of State Departments of Agriculture CEO Barb Glenn said in a statement that the group was working with federal authorities to understand the origin of the seeds.
“Right now we are encouraging the public to keep the seeds and complete packaging, including mailing information, and contact your state department of agriculture or APHIS state director,” Glenn said. “Please do not plant or consume the seeds.”
In Washington, the agriculture department cautioned that people should not burn the seeds because certain seeds actually require fire and smoke to germinate. And even seeds that don’t germinate this way may be able to withstand significant amounts of fire or heat.
Likewise, grinding up the seeds using a blender or other tools is inadvisable because it could release fungal or other plant diseases, the state’s agriculture department said.
Salp said that Washington agriculture officials didn’t know at this point what varieties of seeds that residents there had received, but that there appeared to be multiple kinds.
“A lot of seeds look very similar," she said, "so unless we either grew them or did genetic testing, it would be impossible to tell."
Mary Peck, a spokesperson for Colorado’s agriculture department, also said the state hadn’t determined yet what types of seeds residents there had received in the mail. Peck said the state had at least 90 reports of unsolicited seed mailings as of Wednesday morning.
“And it continues to be updated by the minute,” she added in an email.
Colorado is telling people they shouldn’t throw the seeds away in the trash because they could end up sprouting in a landfill.
Heather Lansdowne, a spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said the agency had received over 300 contacts related to the seed shipments since Saturday. Some were questions and media inquiries, but many of them were reports of packages, she said.
While Lansdowne couldn't provide a specific count for how many seed shipments Kansans have received, she said the first report of a shipment in the state came last Thursday, July 23.
"We have no information about what kind of seeds they are, and thus no evidence of whether they post a threat," she added. As of Wednesday afternoon, Kansas was telling people to keep the packages and wait for the state to get further guidance from USDA.
Thiede said that Minnesota’s agriculture department has never seen widespread illicit seed deliveries in the past.
“We’ve dealt with single cases,” she said, noting that the state and federal government have laws that regulate seed shipments. “We’ve never seen anything on this scale.”
Editor's note: This story was updated after publication to include information that USDA issued late Wednesday night.
Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.
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