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Mystery Seeds Spread Around World
Friday, July 31, 2020 12:23PM CDT

(Dow Jones) -- The case of the mystery seeds showing up in U.S. mailboxes from shippers in China and other countries has gone global.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said consumers in at least 22 U.S. states and several other countries had received unsolicited packages of seeds. Canada, the U.K. and Australia all are investigating the matter.

The USDA, in a recorded radio broadcast released Wednesday night, revealed the world-wide scope of the seed shipments after thousands of people across the U.S. have reported receiving seeds in the mail they didn't order. States from Washington to Virginia have warned residents about the unsolicited packages, and the USDA said earlier this week that it is collecting the packages and will test seeds inside for anything of concern.

Unsolicited seed packages have been on the USDA's radar since at least early June, according to state agriculture officials. Gary Black, Georgia's commissioner of agriculture, said his department contacted USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service after a handful of state residents reported receiving such deliveries around June 2. No further packages were reported in Georgia until late last week, he said.

Osama El-Lissy, a deputy administrator for USDA's APHIS, said the agency has so far identified 14 different species of seeds, from mustard and morning glory to cabbage, rosemary and roses.

As of late Wednesday, there is no indication any of the seeds carry pests or diseases, according to the USDA. Seeds analyzed by the USDA so far have been identified as both horticultural and weed seeds, according to state agricultural officials briefed on the agency's preliminary findings.

USDA also reiterated it has no evidence the packages are something other than a "brushing scam." In such scams, e-commerce vendors on online retailers like Amazon.com Inc. pay "brushers" to place orders for vendors' products, and packages with low-value or no contents are shipped to strangers. Brushers then pose as the buyers and post fake customer reviews to boost the vendor's sales.

Multiple federal agencies are now investigating the seeds, from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection.

"These appear to be delayed packages due to Covid-19, not brushing," said a spokesperson for Amazon in a statement. The company said it is working with its sellers, customers and government agencies to address concerns. USDA didn't immediately comment.

Some recipients of the seed packages said they never ordered seeds from the online retailing giant, or had received all the seeds they ordered before receiving the unsolicited ones.

State agriculture officials said many people who reported receiving packages had never ordered any seeds.

"Ninety-nine percent ordered no seeds," said Sid Miller, commissioner of Texas' agriculture department.

Mike Strain, Louisiana's commissioner of agriculture and forestry, said two FBI agents visited his department on Wednesday to survey the more than 30 seed packages they have collected so far. Representatives from USDA's Office of the Inspector General will conduct a similar survey later this week, he said. State inspectors are meanwhile working to collect hundreds more packages from Louisiana, sent from countries including China, Uzbekistan and the Solomon Islands. Other recipients say packages were sent from the United Arab Emirates and other countries.

"The alphabet soup is definitely engaged," said Logan Wilde, commissioner of the state's Department of Agriculture and Food, adding that the FBI had requested a meeting with his department this week. An FBI representative declined to comment.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the agency is working closely with USDA and other agencies "to target, detect, intercept, and thereby prevent the entry of these potential threats before they have a chance to do any harm."

The spokesperson said CBP's agriculture specialists on a typical day last year seized 4,695 prohibited plants, meats, animal byproducts, and soils and intercepted 314 insect pests from across the country.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency this week instructed Canadians who had received such packages not to plant the seeds, while the U.K. government said it has been investigating packages of seeds marked as "ear studs" that people there received over the last month. Australia's Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment said they were aware of the U.S. seed packages and were investigating whether the issue was occurring in Australia, a spokeswoman said.

Chinese government officials had no immediate comment. China's Foreign Ministry earlier this week said that mailing labels on the seed packages were forged, and that China has asked the U.S. to return the packages for investigation.

State agriculture officials say they are taking the situation seriously due to concerns the seeds could be from invasive plant species that might threaten native plants and crops, or potentially introduce diseases or harm livestock.

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