When 22 states had reports of mysterious seeds arriving in the mail from China, it was easy to imagine a plant-based agro-terrorism was afoot. But based on preliminary analysis of the seed samples already collected, the USDA has reported that the seed packets appear to be a mix of ornamental, fruit and vegetable, herb, and weed species. Thus far, 14 species have been identified including mustard, cabbage, morning glory, rosemary, mint, sage, lavender, hibiscus, and roses. Other countries, including Canada, Australia, and European Union member nations, are also reporting unsolicited seed packages.
“At this time, we don’t have any 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. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has intercepted similar seed shipments in recent years,” the USDA reported. The source has not been identified, however, and the USDA says “it is an evolving situation and and we are working closely with Federal authorities to ensure we are evaluating every possibility.”
Seeds can pose a significant risk for U.S. agriculture and natural resources because they can carry plant viruses or other diseases. Imported vegetable or agricultural seed must meet labeling and phytosanitary requirements and be inspected at the port of entry. Some seeds — including citrus, corn, cotton, okra, tomato, and pepper seed — are restricted and can require permitting, testing, and inspection. Certain seed species are considered so high risk that they are prohibited. For example, true botanical seed of potato cannot be admitted from any country except Canada, and certain areas of Chile and New Zealand.
Anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds should follow these steps:
- In an abundance of caution, people should wear gloves and limit touching the material.
- Save the seeds and the package they came in, including the mailing label.
- Do not open the seed packets.
- Do not plant any of the seed.
- If the packets are already open, place all materials (seeds and packaging) into a zip lock bag and seal it.
- Place everything (seeds and any packaging, including the mailing label) in a mailing envelope. Please include your name, address, and phone number so that a State or Federal agriculture official can contact you for additional information.
- Contact your State plant regulatory official or APHIS State plant health director for instructions or where to send the package, to arrange a no-contact pick up, or to determine a convenient drop-off location.
If the seeds were already thrown away, do not do anything. However, if you planted the seeds:
- Remove the seeds or plants and at least 3″ of the surrounding soil and place inside a plastic bag.
- Squeeze out the air and tightly seal the bag.
- Place the bag inside a second plastic bag, squeeze out the air and seal it tightly.
- Put the bag in the municipal trash. Do not compost it.
- If you planted the seeds in reusable pots or containers, wash the planting container with soap and water to remove any remaining dirt. It’s important to wash the container over a sink or other container to catch the run-off. Put the run-off down the drain or flush down a toilet.
- Soak clean planting container in a 10% bleach and water solution for 30 minutes.