Production Blog

Mystery Seeds Still Under Microscope

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Surprise mailings of seed packets are still being investigated, and most have turned out to be ornamental or horticultural seeds. (Photo courtesy of USDA APHIS)

More than a few people freaked when packages of foreign seeds began mysteriously showing up in mail shipments last year.

The "mystery seeds" are a little less of a mystery these days following investigations into thousands of reports from citizens who received the unsolicited packages. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) news report states that, after months of investigating, they found no evidence that someone was intentionally trying to harm U.S. agriculture with the shipments.

As of March 5, APHIS scientists had collected 19,813 packages and identified a total of 515 different species of seeds -- most of the seeds have been primarily horticultural and ornamental plant varieties, according to DTN email correspondence with USDA-APHIS public affairs specialist K. Cecilia Sequeira.

Reports of the seed deliveries began in July 2020. APHIS officials believe most of the unsolicited packages were part of an internet "brushing scam." Sellers will sometimes ship inexpensive items to make it appear they have lots of transaction history. 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 e-commerce site.

While APHIS confirmed that some of the seeds were sent to the United States unsolicited, other seeds were ordered by the recipients -- unaware they were coming from a foreign country. Still, most of the seed shipments were illegal because they entered the United States without a permit or a phytosanitary certificate, the agency stated.

The fact that numerous packages showed up during a pandemic when people had a heightened sense of wariness added to the drama.

Plants and seeds purchased online from other countries have the potential to be a risk to U.S. agriculture, Plant Protection and Quarantine Program Deputy Administrator Osama El-Lissy confirmed in a news release. Beyond concerns that the plants might be invasive or noxious, insects and pathogens are also able to hitchhike and multiply on plant material.

"We've been working closely with e-commerce companies and other federal partners to stop the flow of illegal plant and seed shipments from entering the country," El-Lissy said.

A special website has been established to provide guidance on buyer and seller responsibilities. It outlines required documents, such as import permits and phytosanitary certificates; provides information on plant and seed species that have additional import requirements; and makes clear which types of plants and seeds are not allowed to be imported into the United States. Find it here:….

APHIS has also reported that it is working with e-commerce companies to remove the online sellers that are participating in the illegal import of propagative materials, including seeds. The agency has also been working with e-commerce companies to ensure they, and the sellers who use their platforms, are complying with USDA import regulations.

"We are thankful to the public for reporting the seeds and getting them to USDA officials so that we could investigate them and avoid introducing foreign pests into our environment," El-Lissy added.

Find the news release regarding mystery seeds here:….

Earlier DTN stories on this topic can be accessed here:… and….

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