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USDA Looks Into Packages of Unsolicited Seeds

Why is USDA looking into the unsolicited packages of seeds?

People across the country have received unsolicited packages of seeds. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP), other Federal agencies, and State departments of agriculture to fully evaluate and understand the situation. Our main concern is the potential for these seeds to introduce damaging pests or diseases that could harm U.S. agriculture.

What should I do if I’ve received a package of seeds?

It is important that we collect and test as many seeds as possible to determine whether these packets present a threat to U.S. agriculture or the environment. Anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds should submit an online report and follow these steps:

  • Save the seeds and the package they came in, any enclosed papers, and the mailing label.
  • Do not open the seed packets.
  • Do not plant any of the seeds.
  • If the packets are already open, place all materials (seeds and packaging) into a sealable plastic bag.
  • Place everything (seeds and any packaging and papers, including the mailing label) in a mailing envelope. Please include your name, address, and phone number so that a Federal agriculture official can contact you for additional information if necessary.
  • Mail the seeds to the designated location in your State.
  • If you are unable to mail the package to the designated location in your State, please contact your APHIS State plant health director to arrange a no-contact pick up, or to determine a convenient drop-off location.

Are the seeds a health risk?

We are not aware of any human health risks at this time. In an abundance of caution, people should wear gloves and limit touching the material. People who believe they are experiencing a health issue as a result of touching these seeds should contact their medical provider.

If I received a package of seeds, should I contact the e-commerce site?

APHIS is working closely with other federal authorities and online retailers. Consumers who received packages of unsolicited seeds may want to consider changing their password on the vendor’s website. Consumers may also want to contact the e-commerce company if they are concerned that their account was compromised in any way or to complain about the fraudulent use of their personal information.  

Why is it important to collect and evaluate these seed packages?

Seeds for planting pose a significant risk for U.S. agriculture and natural resources because they can carry seed-borne viruses or other diseases. Imported vegetable or agricultural seed must meet labeling and phytosanitary requirements and be inspected by APHIS and CBP at the port of entry. Some seeds, including citrus, corn, cotton, okra, tomato, and pepper seed, are restricted and may require an import permit, phytosanitary certificate, inspection at a USDA Plant Inspection Station, or testing to ensure any potential risks are mitigated. Certain seed species are considered so high risk that they are prohibited from entry.

Why would someone send unsolicited seed packages across the country?

What we are learning is that some recipients actually ordered seeds but then forgot or became concerned when they received a package that looked similar to the ones posted on social media and highlighted in the news. However, some recipients did not order any seeds. We believe these packages are part of an internet brushing scam where an online seller—usually overseas—creates false online accounts and posts positive reviews of their products to boost their rating on the ecommerce site. Before an ecommerce site will consider an order valid, a shipment must be initiated to complete the transaction. Sellers carrying out brushing scams will often ship inexpensive items to complete these transactions. The more transactions a seller completes, the higher their rating and the more likely that their items will appear at the top of search results on an ecommerce site.

Is USDA working with other government agencies to look into the issue? 

USDA is working with a number of Federal and State agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), and State departments of agriculture.

How are USDA, CBP, and USPS coordinating detection and prevention efforts to inhibit potential future deliveries of unsolicited seeds? 

USDA has provided guidance to USPS employees to return suspect seed packets to an international mail facility for formal action by CBP. We understand that some international mail facilities have increased staffing or are performing special operations with CBP in an effort to counter these shipments. We are working together to improve targeting and enforcement and deter illegal trade in the international mail pathway. 

USDA is also working with ecommerce companies to remove online sellers that are illegally importing or facilitating the illegal import of propagative materials, including seeds. We have also intensified our engagement with ecommerce companies to ensure they and the sellers who use their platforms are complying with USDA regulations. And, we are working with our counterparts in China to determine who is sending the packages to the United States.

What is USDA doing with the seeds that it is collecting, and what are the initial results?

We are working with State departments of agriculture to quickly collect and test as many seeds as possible to determine whether these packets present a threat to U.S. agriculture or the environment. As we collect the seed packages, we are routing them to APHIS botanists who are examining the seeds 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 botanist may send the seeds to APHIS’ Beltsville Laboratory where they are conducting DNA testing for pathogens that can cause plant diseases.

As of August 31, we have collected 8,507 packages from 50 States. We’ve completed examinations of 2,410 of those packets and identified a total of 321 different species of seed. Overall, we have not found anything of major concern.

Is there a connection to agro-terrorism?

At this point, we have not identified any link to agro-terrorism. This is an evolving situation, and we are working closely with Federal authorities to ensure we are evaluating every possibility.

Is there any indication the seeds are genetically modified?

Our main concern is the potential for these seeds to introduce damaging pests or diseases that could harm U.S. agriculture. As we collect the seed packages, we are routing them to APHIS botanists who are examining the seeds 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 botanist may send the seeds to APHIS’ Beltsville Laboratory where they are conducting DNA testing for pathogens that can cause plant diseases. We are not currently testing the seeds to determine if they are genetically modified.


SCOPE OF THE SITUATION

How and when did the USDA first learn that people were receiving unsolicited seeds?

APHIS’ Smuggling Interdiction and Trade Compliance (SITC) program monitors e-commerce. They analyze trends in trade to find and prevent prohibited and smuggled products moving in commerce that could bring harmful invasive pests and foreign animal diseases into the United States. On July 24, SITC saw a significant uptick in reports from private citizens across the United States who had received unsolicited packages of seed.

How many States have received unsolicited seeds? How many packages of seeds have been received in the United States?

While we don’t know exactly how many seed packets may have entered the United States, we can confirm that we have received reports from all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

Is the United States the only country that received unsolicited seed packages?

No, other countries, including Canada, Australia, and European Union member nations are also reporting that their citizens have received unsolicited seed packages.

Who is sending these seed packages, and where do they originate?

We have not identified the source of the seed packages, but based on the postmarks the vast majority of packages were mailed from China. We are working with our counterparts in China to determine who is sending the packages to the United States.

Is there evidence of shipments from countries other than China?

We have received reports of packages coming from other countries; however our analysis into the source of the seed packets in ongoing.


WHAT I SHOULD DO

What responsibilities do recipients of unsolicited seeds have in terms of reporting or disposing of the seeds?

It is important that we collect and test as many seeds as possible to determine whether these packets present a threat to U.S. agriculture or the environment. Anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds should submit an online report and follow these steps:

  • Save the seeds and the package they came in, any enclosed papers, and the mailing label.
  • Do not open the seed packets.
  • Do not plant any of the seeds.
  • If the packets are already open, place all materials (seeds and packaging) into a sealable plastic bag.
  • Place everything (seeds and any packaging and papers, including the mailing label) in a mailing envelope. Please include your name, address, and phone number so that a Federal agriculture official can contact you for additional information if necessary.
  • Mail the seeds to the designated location in your state.
  • If you are unable to mail the package to the designated location in your State, please contact your APHIS State plant health director to arrange a no-contact pick up, or to determine a convenient drop-off location.

I received seeds and threw them away. Is there anything I should to do?

Please submit an online report, and then there is nothing more you need to do.

Who can I call or email if I have other questions about packages of seeds?

People who have received a package and have additional questions can call their APHIS State plant health director, or the APHIS Customer Call Center at 1-844-820-2234. This line is staffed Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Can I send these seeds through the mail to agricultural officials? What are the procedures?

Anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds should submit an online report and follow these steps:

  • Save the seeds and the package they came in, any enclosed papers, and the mailing label.
  • Do not open the seed packets.
  • Do not plant any of the seeds.
  • If the packets are already open, place all materials (seeds and packaging) into a sealable plastic bag.
  • Place everything (seeds and any packaging and papers, including the mailing label) in a mailing envelope. Please include your name, address, and phone number so that a Federal agriculture official can contact you for additional information if necessary.
  • Mail the seeds to the designated location in your State.
  • If you are unable to mail the package to the designated location in your State, please contact your APHIS State plant health director to arrange a no-contact pick up, or to determine a convenient drop-off location.

If I can’t send the seed package to agricultural officials right away, how should I store them in the meantime?

If you’re unable to mail the seed package to agricultural officials, please follow these steps:

  • Do not open the seed packets.
  • Do not plant any of the seeds.
  • If the packets are already open, place all materials (seeds and packaging) into a sealable plastic bag.
  • Submit an online report.
  • Contact your APHIS State plant health director to arrange a no-contact pick up, or to determine a convenient drop-off location.

Will I be reimbursed for expenses associated with mailing my seed package to agriculture officials?

At this point, we have no way to reimburse for postage. If you cannot mail the seeds, call your  APHIS State plant health director to arrange a no-contact pick-up or to determine a convenient drop-off location.

How can I receive updated information about these packages of seeds?

USDA will provide updates on its website and through its Stakeholder Registry. To subscribe, click here and select the Plant Health News and Information topic.

In relation to purchasing seeds and plants, what can I do to protect plant health in 2020—the International Year of Plant Health? What is my role in this effort? 

The most important thing you can do to help with this situation is report your unsolicited seeds to USDA and send them to the nearest USDA office. Before buying seeds or other planting material online make sure you know where that material is coming from and any import requirements for that country. Imported seed requires a permit from the USDA or a phytosanitary certificate issued by the country of origin.  If the seed is not being sourced from within the United States you should request that documentation in advance, and only buy seed from trusted suppliers.  Online retailers may also promise new seed and plants that are too good to be true, and buyers may not receive what they expected. 

People can submit an online report and find the designated location in their state where they can send their unsolicited seed packages. 

With public’s help, we can safeguard our Nation’s food crops and natural resources this year and every year, and raise global awareness about how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development.


ABOUT THE PACKAGES

Are there any specific markings on the unsolicited seed packages I should look for? What precautions should I take if a package is delivered to me?

The packages are often mislabeled as something other than seeds, such as beads and jewelry. They appear to be coming primarily from China. These trends suggest that this is most likely a large-scale brushing scam.  We are working closely with CBP and other Federal agencies to analyze the situation and prevent future brushing scams.

It is important that we collect and test as many seeds as possible to determine whether these packets present a threat to U.S. agriculture or the environment. Anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds should submit an online report and follow these steps:

  • Save the seeds and the package they came in, any enclosed papers, and the mailing label.
  • Do not open the seed packets.
  • Do not plant any of the seeds.
  • If the packets are already open, place all materials (seeds and packaging) into a sealable plastic bag.
  • Place everything (seeds and any packaging and papers, including the mailing label) in a mailing envelope. Please include your name, address, and phone number so that a Federal agriculture official can contact you for additional information if necessary.
  • Mail the seeds to the designated location in your state.
  • If you are unable to mail the package to the designated location in your State, please contact your APHIS State plant health director to arrange a no-contact pick up, or to determine a convenient drop-off location.

What should I do if I already planted the seeds?

If you already planted the seeds please submit an online report and then:

  • Remove the seeds or plants and at least 3 inches 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 percent bleach and water solution for 30 minutes.

What is USDA doing to stop the unsolicited seeds being delivered?

USDA has provided guidance to USPS employees to return suspect seed packets to an international mail facility for formal action by CBP. We understand that some international mail facilities have increased staffing or are performing special operations with CBP in an effort to counter these shipments. We are working together to improve targeting and enforcement and deter illegal trade in the international mail pathway. 

USDA is working with e-commerce companies to remove online sellers that are illegally importing or facilitating the illegal import of propagative materials, including seeds. We have also intensified our engagement with ecommerce companies to ensure they and the sellers who use their platforms are complying with USDA regulations. 

And, USDA is working with our counterparts in China to determine who is sending the packages to the United States.

What should U.S. consumers know about purchasing seeds or plants online?

Online purchases of plants, seeds, and other plant products can be risky because these items can carry a range of invasive pests and diseases. These purchases can also be illegal without proper inspections and paperwork, such as permits or plant health certificates. At a minimum, all imported seeds, plants, plant parts for planting must be accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate issued by the government of the country of origin. This certificate attests that the plant material is free of invasive plant pests and diseases. U.S. buyers should ask the seller to make sure this certificate is included in the package with the plant material. Most imported plant material also requires an import permit issued by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and may be subject to inspection by APHIS or U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the port of entry. To find out what paperwork you need, contact APHIS Permit Services at 877-770-5990 or by email at plantproducts.permits@usda.gov.

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