Commentary: Why officials worry about mailings of ‘mystery seeds’

Issue Date: August 12, 2020
By Ching Lee
Unsolicited seed packets such as these, received via the mail, have been reported to authorities throughout California and the U.S. While warning recipients not to plant the seeds, officials have been testing them to determine if any are noxious weeds or pose other threats to agriculture.
Photo/Ching Lee

Like many others around the world, I recently received a package of unsolicited seeds in the mail that appear to have come from China.

Sacramento County Agricultural Commissioner Chris Flores told me I was the 60th person to call her office last week to report getting such seeds, which by then had been widely reported in all 50 states and other countries. An agricultural commissioner's representative came to my home to retrieve the seeds. Since my call, her office fielded more than 100 similar reports.

Counties throughout the state and the U.S. have been similarly inundated.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is investigating the matter, said as of late last week it had received more than 8,500 emails and answered some 500 calls from people who had received seed packets or sought information about the situation. The department had received 744 seed packages, sent by local and state authorities and individuals who received seeds.

Unlike commercial seed packets, the seeds I received came in a small, zip-lock bag with no label or planting instructions. What made me suspicious was that the shipping label described the contents as "wire connector." Other packages Sacramento County has collected claimed "jewelry" or "small toy," Flores said.

"That's how they get them through without having to proclaim that it's a plant material," she said.

Agricultural officials have stressed the importance of not planting the seeds, which they say could be noxious weeds or parasitic. Seeds can also carry pathogens, including viruses, bacteria and fungi, that could harm agricultural crops and the environment, Flores said.

Of the samples USDA has tested so far, the department said the seeds appear to be a mix of horticultural and weed species sent as part of a "brushing scam," in which sellers send unsolicited items to people and then post false reviews to boost sales. But the sheer number of unsolicited seed packets showing up in mailboxes begs the question of how well authorities regulate what comes through the mail.

For ports of entry, at least, all agricultural products, seeds and plant materials must be declared. Seeds require a phytosanitary certificate. If the shipment totals no more than 50 packets, it can enter with a small-lots permit.

Seeds coming through the mail are harder to police. Because U.S. Postal Service mail is federally protected, it is often difficult to inspect for plant materials, said Kevin Martyn, deputy Sacramento County agricultural commissioner. Even though there are federal quarantine rules about placing plant material in U.S. mail, they're not always enforced, he added.

Inspections are done at incoming shipping points such as distribution centers for the post office, FedEx, UPS and DHL. U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimates it made 15,000 interceptions of seeds in mail shipments from all sources worldwide in 2019, with 5,000 from China and Hong Kong.

"We've been trying to work with Amazon and a lot of these internet shippers, even private individuals on eBay and the like, for a long time," Martyn said. "Unfortunately, even people that are doing business do not always follow the quarantine rules, especially from a foreign country."

Flores said one woman who received seeds about a month ago planted them, because she thought they were seeds she had ordered from a seed company—until her actual order came in and she saw news reports about the brushing scam. Fortunately, she planted the first seeds in vases, Flores said, adding that her staff has since collected the soil and the plants that sprouted.

In California, county agricultural commissioners have been collecting the seeds themselves or are having people send them directly to USDA. To find out where to send seed packets, go to: www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/planthealth/announcement/unsolicited-seeds.

USDA said it is routing the seeds to government botanists to determine their species, including whether there are any federally listed noxious weeds. Depending on the species and the potential risk it poses to U.S. agriculture, the botanists may send the seeds to a USDA laboratory, which will test the seeds for pathogens that can cause plant diseases.

Using a microscope, botanists can identify the seed through its shape, size, color, texture and surface structure, said Robert Price, senior seed botanist with the California Department of Food and Agriculture Plant Pest Diagnostics Branch, which is not involved in the current testing. Botanists can also cut open a seed to check its internal anatomy. To test for pathogens, they turn to DNA, and chemical analysis is used to test for treated seeds. Special lab kits are required to test for transgenic seed.

USDA said it is not destroying the seeds it's collected but is "safeguarding and storing them in case we or another federal authority need to review them."

Though the mystery seeds may turn out to be benign, Martyn said the prevalence of harmful pathogens in the plant world should be a concern for people thinking of planting any seed that has not been certified.

"Even without the intention of trying to cause harm, it could," he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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