This story was originally published by Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
All US states have issued warnings about mysterious, unsolicited packages of seeds randomly mailed to U.S. homes in the past few days.
The agricultural departments in all states have urged people not to plant the seeds, saying they might be invasive or otherwise harmful.
The unsolicited packages of seed appear to be coming from China, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). USDA on Tuesday asked the recipients to hold the seeds and packaging, including the mailing label, until authorities contact them.
In the last few days, thousands of packages of seeds have been mailed nationwide, according to Midwest Center’s review of 50 states’ agricultural agencies’ statements and local news reports.
More than 800 packages have been sent to residents in Florida as of Wednesday, according to a local news channel WFLA.
Virginia Department of Agriculture had received over 900 emails and several hundred telephone calls from people as of Monday, according to The New York Times.
The Idaho Department of Agriculture said in a statement on Monday that it had received approximately 20 calls or emails from people who had reported receiving such seeds in the mail.
As the number of reports of receiving such packages continue to grow, several states had referred to the volumes of their received reports as “multiple,” “numerous,” “several,” and “many.”
In some states, people have reported receiving similar seeds from countries other than China. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig confirmed on Tuesday that the Iowans have received unsolicited seed shipments from China and other countries.
Likewise, the Colorado Department of Agriculture has also received “numerous” reports from across the state of people receiving packages of seeds that appear to have originated from China and other countries. The USDA said that it was working with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection to investigate the packages, according to its statement. The agency was collecting the seed packages from the recipients to determine if they were a concern to agriculture or the environment.
In Illinois, the Department of Agriculture said it was working with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection (APHIS) to address reports of unsolicited shipments of seeds from foreign countries.
It urged people to send emails to the department’s email address mentioning the names and number of packages they received. Alabama Department of Agriculture has created an online platform to collect reports from the recipients of mysterious seeds. In Mississippi, Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson asked seed recipients to call the Bureau of Plant Industry and said they would collect the seeds.
Similarly, West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt said in a statement on Monday that the department was “aware” of reports from people in the state who received seeds in the mail that they didn’t order.
“Unsolicited seeds could be invasive, introduce diseases to local plants or be harmful to livestock,” said Leonhardt. “We are working with the USDA to determine the proper recourse for such seeds.”
Similar warnings have been issued in all other states.
“The South Dakota Department of Agriculture has received reports of unsolicited seeds being mailed to South Dakotans,” said Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden. “We’re not sure the intent behind this activity.”
USDA said that it didn’t have any evidence indicating this is something other than a “brushing scam” where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts customer reviews to boost sales.
Photos shared by state agricultural departments show the packages have been delivered mostly in white or yellow envelopes, displaying Chinese characters and the words “China Post” and “Made in China” Some pouches were labeled as jewelry, although the inside is a packet of seeds in transparent plastic packaging.
Barb Glenn, chief executive officer of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), said NASDA was working with USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Department of Homeland Security to understand the origin of these unsolicited seeds.