By Jesse Newman and Jacob Bunge
State agriculture officials are urging the U.S. Postal Service
to stop delivering the mysterious seed packages that have been
arriving in mailboxes across the country, mailings that federal
officials believe are coming from China.
Agriculture officials from several states have pressed the
federal government to halt deliveries of packages that may contain
the seeds, as states continue to be inundated by reports from
people across the U.S. who have received them. Officials are
concerned the seeds could introduce weeds, pests or diseases that
could harm U.S. agriculture.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said last week it had
identified 14 species of seeds, from mustard and morning glory to
cabbage, rosemary and roses. As of late Wednesday, there was no
indication the seeds carry pests or diseases, according to the
USDA. Several states say they have identified seeds of weed species
that could pose a threat to crops and native plants.
"We are working closely with [U.S. Customs and Border
Protection] to intercept illegally imported seed packages," a USDA
spokesperson said in a statement. "We're also working with other
federal authorities, the U.S. Postal Service, express carriers, and
online marketplaces to stop future deliveries."
USDA and e-commerce representatives had a productive call on
Friday, according to the spokesperson
The Postal Inspection Service, the law-enforcement arm of the
USPS, said it is aware of the recent seed mailings and is in
consultation with federal, state and local officials. A
spokesperson for the USPS said employees at international mail
facilities have been instructed to notify authorities if they
notice any suspicious packages.
A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said last week the
agency was working "to target, detect, intercept, and thereby
prevent the entry of these potential threats."
Agricultural officials in Mississippi and Minnesota said they
had asked the USPS whether the agency could identify and intercept
seed packages before they are delivered to homes.
"Our whole goal would be to prevent the seeds from being
delivered," said Phil Wilson, director of the plant-industry
division at North Carolina's Department of Agriculture &
Consumer Services. "We're still getting calls on top of calls and
you don't know how much is in the pipeline."
Mr. Wilson said as of Monday his department had received more
than 900 reports, and that he has also pushed for the USPS to stem
the flow of unsolicited seed deliveries.
Blayne Arthur, Oklahoma's secretary of agriculture, said there
is a difficult balance to strike between protecting U.S.
agriculture and respecting Americans' personal property rights and
privacy. Sid Miller, Texas' agriculture commissioner, said it could
be difficult to identify and catch all of the suspect seed packages
since many have been labeled as containing jewelry or other
Since late July, hundreds of people across at least 22 states
and other countries have received in the mail unsolicited packages
containing seeds, mostly postmarked from China, but also from other
countries. Many have contacted local agricultural officials, who
are urging people not to open or handle the seeds, and to turn them
in for analysis. A few people have planted them, according to state
A state agriculture official said the federal government is
investigating whether the seed packages originated from a single
source, and whether the return address labels are accurate. Some
officials briefed by the USDA on Monday said the investigation
points to China, despite packages that appear to have been sent
from other places in addition to China, including Uzbekistan,
Kyrgyzstan, the Solomon Islands, the United Arab Emirates and
"We have not identified the source of the seed packages, but
they appear to be coming from China," a USDA spokesperson said.
China's Foreign Ministry said last week that mailing labels on
the seed packages were forged and that the country had asked the
U.S. to send the packages to China for investigation. The ministry
this week had no immediate comment.
The USDA has said it has no evidence the packages are anything
other than a "brushing scam," in which vendors selling through
online retailers like Amazon.com Inc. pay "brushers" to place
orders for their products, with packages with low-value or no
contents being shipped to strangers. Brushers then pose as the
buyers and post fake customer reviews to boost the vendor's
Over the last decade, online marketplaces like Amazon and others
have signed up Chinese manufacturers and merchants that sell
products directly to Americans. Some e-commerce sellers and experts
have linked these sellers to dubious sales tactics, like brushing
schemes, on the platforms.
Amazon reiterated Monday its view that the seed packages appear
to be delayed packages due to Covid-19.
The company, however, is still investigating any connection the
platform may have to the packages and whether brushing is involved,
a person familiar with the matter said. Amazon has been in contact
with the USDA to resolve the matter.
The USDA said brushing scams involving seed packets in
international mail shipments are not uncommon. Customs and Border
Protection has intercepted similar seed shipments in recent years,
according to the USDA.
Some state agricultural officials said they were skeptical. "It
doesn't look like the type of thing that's a simple brushing scam,"
said Andy Gipson, Mississippi's agriculture commissioner. "Someone
is expending huge sums of money to get these seeds in some cases to
very remote locations throughout the United States."
The USDA said it hasn't identified any link to agroterrorism,
though the situation is evolving and it is evaluating every
Seed recipients seem to be people who recently purchased goods
online, the USDA said, adding that consumers who received
unsolicited seed packages may want to change their passwords on
e-commerce sites and contact the companies if they are concerned
their accounts were compromised.
The USDA is routing seeds it has collected from across the U.S.
to the agency's botanists to determine their species. Its
preliminary analysis of seeds has identified a mix of ornamental,
fruit and vegetable, herb and weed species.
"A lot of us are still shaking our heads trying to figure out
the pieces of the puzzle," said Ms. Arthur. "We know we don't have
them all together yet."
--Sebastian Herrera contributed to this article.
Write to Jesse Newman at firstname.lastname@example.org and Jacob Bunge at
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 04, 2020 13:18 ET (17:18 GMT)
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