Federal officials are preparing to test seeds that have been appearing in mailboxes across the country to determine whether they could be harmful to U.S. agriculture or the environment.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning to test the seeds following reports that hundreds of people are receiving such packages in the mail that they didn’t order. Since last week, dozens of states from Florida to Nevada have warned residents about the unsolicited seed packages that appear to be mostly from China. State and federal officials have urged people not to plant the seeds, which they say could be invasive plant species that might threaten native plants and crops, or potentially introduce diseases or harm livestock.
The USDA said Tuesday it is collecting seed packages from recipients to test their contents to “determine if they contain anything that could be of concern.” The agency said it has no evidence the packages are something other than a “brushing scam,” in which people receive unsolicited items from an online seller who then posts fake customer reviews from a verified buyer to boost sales.
Mike Strain, Louisiana’s commissioner of agriculture and forestry, said his department is in the process of retrieving seeds from some of the roughly 300 people who have received unsolicited packages from China and other countries. USDA officials would visit the department in the next few days to examine the seeds it has collected, he said.
Among the seeds Louisiana is retrieving are those sent to Darci Portie, a 40-year old nurse practitioner. Ms. Portie’s seeds, delivered Saturday, came in a small parcel bearing a label that suggested there was a single bead inside that had been sent from the United Arab Emirates. The package contained a small plastic bag with roughly 100 brown seeds, the size and color of raisins.
“A million things run through your head,” said Ms. Portie, such as how and why the seeds were sent to her. Ms. Portie said her husband is an avid gardener, and has been jokingly cajoling her to let him plant just one seed. “That’s not going to happen,” she said.
The Washington, D.C., embassy of the United Arab Emirates didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
China’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that mailing labels on the seed packages were forged and that the country has asked the U.S. to return the packages to China for investigation.
Mr. Strain of Louisiana said, “What concerns us [is] if someone does not contact us, and plants the seeds or feeds them to their chickens.” He said Louisiana already is fighting an invasive insect called the mealy bug that is killing a marsh grass called Roseau cane along the state’s coast.
The Office of Indiana State Chemist, located at Purdue University, urged Indiana residents on Tuesday not to plant or even dispose of the seeds, because of the potential harm they could cause to backyard gardens and crops that are key to the agricultural economy.
“It might be tempting to put this into some soil to see what happens, but there’s a lot of damage that can cause,” said Don Robison, seed administrator for the Office of Indiana State Chemist. “The last thing we want is to spread a weed, invasive species or disease, and that’s a real risk if people plant these or throw them in the garbage.”
Brittany Ensign, a first-time gardener in upstate New York, has carefully sealed the stuffed bag of seeds she received in the mail on Monday. The seeds, light brown and reminiscent of bird seed, came in a package suggesting it was from China that possibly contained either a wire connector or 1,500 pieces of jewelry.
“I’m a little confused, and I’m curious,” she said.
Michael Wallace, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer services, said several people the department has heard from have planted seeds they received. Since last week, Virginia officials have been inundated by more than 1,000 calls and emails from seed recipients, Mr. Wallace said.
“This is much bigger than what we initially thought,” he said.