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USDA officials identify 14 species in unsolicited seed packages

Agriculture
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The S.C. Department of Agriculture and Clemson University are investigating unsolicited seed packages. The USDA said the seeds may be part of a "brushing" scam. (Photo/Provided)

Mysterious packets of unsolicited seeds that began showing up in U.S. mailboxes, including some in South Carolina, late last week have now reached Australia, the European Union, and Canada, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials say, and some of the seeds have been identified.

Osama El-Lissy, the deputy administrator for the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, told USDA radio on Wednesday that 14 different species have been identified in a subset of samples received by the organization, including “mustard, cabbage, morning glory, and some of the herbs, like mint, sage, rosemary, lavender, and then other seeds like hibiscus,” El-Lissy said.

While concern remains about the potential for the seeds, shipped from China, to introduce harmful pests and diseases, El-Lissy said they could also be part of a common scam.

“We do not have any evidence indicating that this is something other than a so-called brushing scam, where people receive unsolicited items from a seller, who then posts false customer reviews to boost their sales,” El-Lissy said.

APHIS is collecting reports and conducting a national investigation, while the S.C. Department of Agriculture and Clemson University’s Regulatory Services division have also banded together to investigate the unsolicited seeds.

“If these seeds should bear invasive species, they may be a threat to our environment and agriculture,” Steve Cole, director of Clemson's Regulatory Services unit, said in the release. “We don't want unknown species planted or thrown out where they may wind up sprouting in a landfill.”

Officials advise recipients of unsolicited seed packages not to open the packet or handle the seeds. The seeds and their packaging, including mailing labels, should be placed in a zip-top bag, and recipients should contact the USDA agency handling the investigation online, by email at SITC.Mail@aphis.usda.gov or by phone at 800-877-3835.

“Whatever the reason for these mailings, it’s important to use caution when it comes to unidentified seeds,” said S.C. Department of Agriculture Assistant Commissioner Derek Underwood, who oversees the agency’s Consumer Protection Division. 

Residents in Washington state, Virginia and Utah reported receiving seeds last week. The Washington State Department of Agriculture told the Tacoma News Tribune in an article published Friday that the seeds usually arrive in packages marked as containing jewelry.

A person answering the phone at the Washington State agricultural department on Monday did not want to answer questions on the record.

“USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is aware that people across the country have received unsolicited packages of seed from China in recent days,” K. Cecilia Sequeira, APHIS public affairs specialist, said in an emailed response Monday to inquiries from the Columbia Regional Business Report. “APHIS is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection and state departments of agriculture to prevent the unlawful entry of prohibited seeds and protect U.S. agriculture from invasive pests and noxious weeds.”

Additional questions can be directed to the S.C. Department of Agriculture’s Seed Lab at 803-737-9717 or seedlab@scda.sc.gov, Clemson University’s Department of Plant Industry at invasives@clemson.edu, or a local Clemson Extension office.

Reach Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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July 30, 2020

Has anyone else just about had it with China?