U.S., Chinese Officials Jointly Look Into Mystery Seeds

The USDA identified seeds of some potentially harmful weeds and a common beetle larva among the fraction of shipments it has checked, but otherwise hasn’t found anything alarming.

Photo: wsda/Reuters

U.S. agriculture officials said they are working with their counterparts in China to determine who is sending mysterious seed packages to U.S. residents and to stop future shipments.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a recorded radio broadcast released Wednesday that China is helping to identify the senders of the seeds, and that the agency knows the names of companies behind the shipments. The USDA also said China’s postal service is cooperating with the investigation.

China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

“We don’t know the background information about these companies, and that’s why we’re working with our counterparts in China to follow up on some of these senders,” said Osama El-Lissy, a deputy administrator for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, in the broadcast.

More on the Mystery Seeds

  • U.S. Postal Service Is Urged to Stop Delivering Mysterious Seeds (Aug. 4)
  • Unidentified Seeds Raise Questions About Online Sales Tactics in China (July 31)
  • Mystery Seeds Spread Around the World (July 30)
  • ‘Brushers’ Come Into Focus as Officials Test Packages of Mysterious Seeds (July 30)

Mr. El-Lissy said the USDA also has been working with major e-commerce companies to use their systems to curtail future seed shipments.

Multiple U.S. agencies, from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, have been investigating the seed shipments since reports began flooding in last month from thousands of people across dozens of states who received unidentified seeds in the mail, many of which were postmarked from China.

Officials are concerned the seeds could introduce invasive species, weeds, pests or diseases that might harm U.S. agriculture. As of Tuesday evening, Mr. El-Lissy said his department had found no major problems, though the agency has managed to check just a fraction of the packages delivered to residents from Virginia to Washington. Mr. El-Lissy said the USDA has so far collected some 925 seed packages after receiving more than 9,000 reports from people who received unsolicited seeds.

The USDA has found a few potentially harmful weeds, including one called water spinach, Mr. El-Lissy said, as well as one package containing larvae of a leaf beetle, which he said are common. “Other than that, we have not found anything alarming,” he said.

Initially, the USDA said it had no evidence the seed packages were 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, shipping packages with low-value or no contents to strangers. Brushers then pose as the buyers and post fake customer reviews to boost the vendor’s sales.

On Wednesday, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said some people who have reported receiving seeds had ordered them, but either forgot or reported the deliveries after growing concerned because their packages looked similar to those highlighted on social media or the news.

“In those situations, the recipient provided their information to a seller during an online transaction,” the agency said.

USDA officials reiterated Wednesday that some recipients didn’t order seeds, and said they believe those packages are part of a brushing scam. 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 some of these sellers to dubious sales tactics, including brushing schemes, on the platforms.

Amazon has said the seed packages appear to be delayed shipments due to Covid-19. The company didn’t immediately comment on Wednesday.

Amazon is still investigating any connection the platform might have to the packages and whether brushing is involved, a person familiar with the matter said. The company has been in contact with the USDA to resolve the matter.

Lawmakers this week pressed the USDA and other federal authorities to solve the seed puzzle and strengthen shipping safeguards to catch similar episodes in the future.

Twenty-one House lawmakers in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue Monday warned that even if an e-commerce scam is behind the unsolicited seed deliveries in recent weeks, it still shows the country’s potential vulnerability to agricultural terrorism that could hit the domestic food supply. The bipartisan group of representatives urged the USDA and other agencies to develop a plan to better detect such threats.

In a separate letter Tuesday, Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) and Gary Peters (D., Mich.) asked federal agencies to report by Aug. 25 initial results into their probe of the seed packages and their origin, as well as how federal officials plan to stop any further unsolicited seed shipments.

“It is alarming that the seeds were able to enter the country in the first place,” the senators wrote.

The USDA has said it hasn’t identified any link to agricultural terrorism, though the situation is evolving and officials are evaluating every possibility.

The agency inspects commercial imports of plants and seeds at 16 stations around the country to ensure they meet federal requirements, according to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Customs and Border Protection is responsible for enforcing plant health regulations at U.S. ports of entry and international mail facilities, which includes inspecting commercial cargo shipments, international travelers’ bags and international mail packages.

“It has become challenging to interdict noncompliant packages given the increased volume of mail entering the country in recent years,” the USDA said, adding that it and the customs department have been working with the U.S. Postal Service to improve targeting and enforcement in international mail.

Write to Jesse Newman at [email protected] and Jacob Bunge at [email protected]

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