USDA calls seeds sent from China to Washingtonians a “brushing scam”

US officials investigate unsolicited packages arriving from China

An investigation into unsolicited seeds mailed from China to the US finds they are most likely a scam and not harmful – but Washington State Department of Agriculture officials say Washingtonians should still dispose of the packets safely after contacted by an official.

The WSDA issued a warning to the public on Saturday, stating that seeds were arriving by mail to multiple residents. Chris McGann, a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said they don’t have a comprehensive count of packets but at least a few dozen Washingtonians received the “agricultural smuggling” seed packets by mail.

At least 26 states across the country have seen similar packages arriving. Multiple agencies have warned the people who receive the seeds to dispose of them properly and avoid any destructive exposure the seeds could cause. McGann said during his career with WSDA, he has never seen something like this before and isn’t surprised people are analyzing the odd packages.

“I do think it’s unusual and it’s understandable that the public has concerns,” he said, “Given the climate and everything,  from COVID to trade relations with China, there are all these red flags that make people have cause for concern and it’s understandable. At this point, what we are instructing people to do or asking them to do is simply destroy the seeds and let the USDA carry out the investigation.”

In an online post, the WSDA warns residents of what could be inside the packets of seeds that could lead to agricultural and economic devastation.

  • They could be invasive. Some plants are not allowed to enter the country because they are known to be invasive, and could out compete native plants.
  • They could harbor pests and diseases. Plants and seeds can have insect or disease pests that could devastate native plants that have no defense against them. This could lead to the loss of plants or require increased pesticide use to manage.
  • They could harm livestock. Some plants are toxic to livestock and other animals – even humans. If they are planted, they could be harmful to livestock and other animals.

The US Department of Agriculture released a statement Tuesday regarding their investigation by stating the “USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, other federal agencies, and State departments of agriculture to investigate the situation.”

The statement reads, “At this time, we don’t have any evidence indicating this is something other than a “brushing scam” where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost sales. USDA is currently collecting seed packages from recipients and will test their contents and determine if they contain anything that could be of concern to U.S. agriculture or the environment. USDA is committed to preventing the unlawful entry of prohibited seeds and protecting U.S. agriculture from invasive pests and noxious weeds.”

As USDA continues their investigation, they ask anyone else who receives seeds or unsolicited packages, including the mailing label, until someone from the department of agriculture or APHIS contacts them. They repeat in the statement, “Do not plant seeds from unknown origins.”

To contact officials, people can click here and type in their state. Information of who to call will become available.

McGann said people have been looking to the internet to find what to do with the seeds where some sources said to bleach them or set them on fire. He said setting them on fire could make the situation worse with a super spread of whatever could be inside the packaging.

“We are discouraging those methods,” McGann said, “Burning seeds in some cases actually activates the germination. Anybody who’s ever seen a wildfire documentary has seen that the seeds live dormant until a fire. We don’t know what could spark germination so please just stick with a double bagging and throw it in a regular landfill garbage and we think that that’s the safest approach to dealing with these.”