The Bulletin

Scientists identify 14 species among hundreds of mystery seeds sent to U.S.

By: - August 3, 2020 12:34 am

A U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, National Identification Services (NIS) botanist examines seeds from an unsolicited package of seeds under a microscope. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Mustard. Cabbage. Morning glory. Mint. Sage.

That’s not a shopping list for a visit to the plant nursery. It’s five of the types of seeds federal scientists have identified among the hundreds mailed to U.S. residents without warning over the past few weeks, largely in packaging containing Chinese writing. 

According to the most recent update from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the lead agency investigating the mystery seeds, 14 different species of seeds have been identified.

Besides the five listed above, scientists have also identified rosemary, lavender, hibiscus and roses. 

“This is just a subset of the samples we’ve collected so far,” said Osama El-Lissy, deputy director of APHIS’s Plant Protection and Quarantine program in a clip shared by the agency online

While a spokesperson for APHIS said the agency didn’t have Virginia-specific information that has been confirmed, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Director of Communications Michael Wallace said that to date, the agency “has received 150 reports using the online reporting form, over 1,500 emails, and approximately 1,000 phone calls from individuals who received unsolicited seed shipments.”

“At this time, 500 of the 1,500 email reports are from Virginia residents,” Wallace wrote in an email to the Mercury. “The office is still sifting through emails to determine the state of residence.”

Unsolicited seed packages started appearing in the U.S. in Utah in mid-July, with Virginia officials announcing their appearance in the commonwealth July 24.

Since then, the USDA has reported the seeds have shown up in 22 states, as well as in other countries in the European Union and in Canada and Australia. 

The source of the seeds has not yet been identified, although “they appear to be coming from China,” an APHIS brief from July 31 said. The agency also said there have been some reports of packages coming from other countries. 

Exactly why the seeds have been sent remains unclear. The same APHIS brief notes that currently there is no “evidence that this is anything other than an internet ‘brushing scam,’ where sellers send unsolicited items to unsuspecting consumers and then post false reviews to boost sales.” 

“Brushing scams involving seed packets in international mail shipments are not uncommon,” the agency wrote. “U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has intercepted similar seed shipments in recent years.”

And while officials said they have found no links to “agro-terrorism” activities, the concern is that uninspected and untracked seeds can carry viruses or other diseases that attack crops inside U.S. borders. 

Residents are encouraged to turn in all unsolicited seeds to officials.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]