Small packages, big warnings: Unsolicited seeds arrive in Kansas

Jill Way
Dodge City Daily Globe
Unsolicited seeds, labeled as things like jewelry and beads, have arrived in mailboxes around the nation, prompting an investigation by the U.S Department of Agriculture. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's National Identification Services coordinates the identification of plant pests. Scientists analyze seed packages such as these to determine if they contain plant pests.

Sometimes small packages come with big warnings.

According to the Kansas Department of Agriculture, small unsolicited packages of seeds, seemingly coming from China, are showing up in mailboxes across the state.

The release said the types of seeds in the packages, which are sometimes labeled as jewelry and may have Chinese writing on them, are unknown at this time.

Heather Lansdowne, KDA’s director of communications, said someone first contacted the department about receiving seeds in the mail on Thursday, July 23.

Within a couple of days, she said, the department knew it wasn’t an isolated incident.

“We have had quite a few Kansans report to us that they have received packages of seeds,” Lansdowne said.

In fact, she said, over the past two weeks, the department has received hundreds of emails, phone calls and website reports from Kansans who have received these packages.

“Last week, we were in constant communication with our partners at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who is leading the investigation in this situation,” she said. “At the end of the week, they provided us with a procedure for what people should do with the seeds.”

Lansdowne said KDA contacted everyone who reported receiving the seeds, providing them with the instructions and asking them to send the seeds to Kansas’ USDA office.

“If that’s not possible, we provided them with an option to dispose of the seeds,” she said.

Most importantly, the USDA has said people should not plant the seeds and should limit handling of the seeds if the package is open.

A Kansas Department of Agriculture news release said the USDA is planning to analyze the seeds to determine the species and whether they contain any pathogens or insect pests.

The release said the USDA “will be able to work with other federal agencies to try to determine where these packages are coming from and how to stop them.”

According to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website, investigators currently believe the seeds are part of a “brushing scam,” in which people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost sales.

However, planting unknown seeds of unknown origin could devastate local habitats.

Lansdowne said the unknown seeds could threaten plant health.

“That threat could come in the form of an invasive species, or a seed-borne plant disease, or invasive pests,” she said.

In fact, Kansas’ Department of Agriculture actively works to prevent the introduction of those invasive species to protect Kansas agriculture.

“Invasive species wreak havoc on the environment, displace or destroy native plants and insects and severely damage crops,” the release said.

They could also harm livestock, the release said.

Following the USDA’s process to eliminate the seeds will help reduce the chance an exotic invasive species of plant or plant pest is introduced into the environment, the release said.

Investigators don’t currently feel the seeds are harmful to humans.

“At this time, we have been given no reason to believe the seeds being sent pose a health danger to people or animals,” the release said. “If you or your pets exhibit any symptoms of concern, contact a medical professional.”

Lansdowne said KDA appreciates “the vigilance that Kansans have shown toward protecting plant health, which is part of the mission at the Kansas Department of Agriculture.”

“We want to reduce the risk of those threats in Kansas, to protect Kansas agriculture and all Kansas plant life,” she said.

What should I do if I get seeds in the mail?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recommends the following options if you receive an unsolicited package of seeds from China:

Option 1 (preferred): Double bag the seeds and all of the original mailing packaging, if you still have it, in sealable plastic bags, and complete the “Unsolicited Seeds Submission Form” found online at www.agriculture.ks.gov/divisions-programs/plant-protect-weed-control/seed.

Place everything, including the form, in a padded mailing envelope, and mail the package to:

USDA-APHIS

1131 S.W. Winding Road, Suite A

Topeka, KS 66615

Option 2: Using duct tape, completely cover the seed packet from all sides with tape. Double bag the seed packet into two sealable bags, removing air pockets. Fold over to reduce size and completely cover the folded-over bag with duct tape. This minimizes risk by preventing bag breakage and preventing water and sun reaching the seeds. Discard in the trash.

Reminders: Do not plant the seeds.

Limit handling of the seeds if you have opened the package.

If you have already planted the seeds, report it to KDA by phone at 785-564-6698 or by email KDA.PPWC@ks.gov, even if you have already called or sent an email.

This package of seeds sent to a U.S. resident has been identified as Solanum lycopersicum -- tomato seeds -- by a U.S Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service botanist in at the John F. Kennedy Plant Inspection Station in New York. These seeds are on their way to the National Identification Services lab in Beltsville, Md., for further testing to determine if they carry any pests or diseases of concern to U.S. agriculture.