Morning glories and mustard: America investigates unsolicited seed mystery

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The US Department of Agriculture has identified more than a dozen plant species ranging from morning glories to mustard in bags of unsolicited seeds that reach the mailboxes of thousands of Americans, mostly postmarked from China.

Unsolicited seeds that arrived in the mail, reported by a U.S. citizen to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, are seen in an undated photo. USDA APHIS / Brochure via REUTERS

While most of the species identified appear to be harmless herbs, flowering plants, vegetables, or grasses, plant experts caution that seeds from other parts of the world may be non-native varieties that damage commercial crops.

Another concern is what appears to be an unknown coating, possibly an insecticide or fungicide on the seeds, said Robin Pruisner, a state seed control official at the Department of Agriculture and Land Administration in Iowa, the main US corn growing state. USA

Pruisner said that unknown seed treatments could harm crops.

“People have described to me that the seeds are covered in something purple. I haven’t had it in my hands yet, but it sounds a lot like a seed treatment, ”he said.

Pruisner said he had received 297 seed reports received as of Thursday afternoon.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (APHIS) is instructing state agencies to collect the seeds and send them for analysis. The agency said Wednesday that it had identified 14 different species of seeds, but noted that it was still early in the process.

The Department of Agriculture has said the packages are likely part of a “brushing” scam, in which people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false positive customer reviews to boost sales.

The United States Office of Customs and Border Protection is also investigating the origin of the seeds. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the packages appear to have been forged.

The packages have also been reported in Canada, where the Provincial Police of the Central Ontario Region posted a warning on Facebook on Wednesday against “foreign seeds in the mail from China or Taiwan.”

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said it received 1,209 reports on the seeds, with 300 phone calls Thursday alone.

State agriculture departments also reported on packages shipped from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, although most are from China.

Most states are asking people to report the packages to the state agriculture department, which will then send inspectors to pick them up.

Sadie Crawford, who works in marketing in Townsend, Massachusetts, said she had just ordered watermelon, ivy, and morning glory seeds from Inc (AMZN.O), so I assumed that the two packages you received were mislabeled.

“I put them in water and got some sprouts,” said Crawford. “We were very curious to know what they were.”

The plants have since died and Crawford reported the second package to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

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Seed companies have seen a global boom in retail and online demand during the pandemic as free-time consumers turn to gardening.

But Pruisner cautioned that international online seed purchases could pose an ecological threat.

“The a-ha moment I really had here is the amount of seed that people are buying in other countries,” he said. “It just amazed me, when I talk to people, how they say the other seed they bought from China is fine.”

Report by Christopher Walljasper; Additional reports from Kelsey Johnson; Caroline Stauffer and Tom Brown edition

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