Early this week, reports emerged that people were receiving mysterious packages of seeds that they never ordered.
The packages, which appear to have been shipped from China, have raised significant concerns from federal and state agencies, including Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Officials at the United States Department of Agriculture believe these packages are a marketing scam and that the seeds and packaging don’t present any danger to their recipients.
If that’s the case, then why are officials so concerned about these mailings?
“It seems innocuous, and I think there’s people who just think, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with receiving a package of seeds?’ But it’s actually a potential problem for several reasons,” said Irwin Goldman, a professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Because the mailed seeds have not been identified or inspected, there’s a chance they could belong to an invasive species or carry plant diseases that would pose environmental risks.
“Here in Wisconsin, in particular, we have substantial economic interest, food security interest in keeping plants protected from pathogens,” said Amanda Gevens, a professor of plant pathology at UW-Madison. “They certainly have the capacity to wipe out crops.”
Goldman, who breeds carrot, beet and onion varieties, often ships seeds to other countries.
With each shipment, Goldman has to include what is called a phytosanitary form. In Wisconsin, those forms are issued by the state DATCP and certify that the seeds do not carry any harmful pathogens.
Often, inspectors simply ask questions about where the seeds come from and how they were produced. Sometimes physical inspections and tests of the seeds are carried out.
None of the seeds sent out with the recent mailings have this type of documentation.
“Even though it’s a global economy,” said Goldman, “we do spend a lot of time trying to make sure that we don’t get passed some pathogens and invasive species in our environment.”
Some of the mystery seeds sent to the United States Department of Agriculture have been identified and appear to belong to fairly common vegetables, herbs and flowers, including cabbages, morning glories and mint.
But there are a lot of packages out there and analysis is still ongoing.
Officials currently believe these packages are part of what is called a “brushing scam.”
“We do not have any evidence indicating that this is something other than a so-called ‘brushing scam’ where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost their sales,” said Osama El-Lissy during a USDA Radio broadcast on Wednesday.
El-Lissy is an official with the plant protection program of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Jim Temmer, president of Wisconsin’s Better Business Bureau, says that these scams are common, but notes that this one seems to be more extensive. As of Wednesday, 22 states, Canada, Australia and the European Union have reported receiving these packages.
One reason could be the low cost of seeds compared to other items often used in brushing scams like small electronics.
Temmer says it’s very unlikely that the seller or company responsible for the packages will be identified.
Wisconsin officials caution residents not to plant or throw away any unidentified seeds they receive through the mail. DATCP also advises recipients to save all packaging, which could provide clues for the origin and identity of the seeds.
Anyone who receives these seeds should report the packages to the DATCP through this online form at https://bit.ly/33eP5uC. The state will work with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to follow up on any reports.
In addition to following the USDA and DATCP recommendations, Temmer suggests making sure your online accounts are secure and up-to-date if you receive an unsolicited package.
Jordan Nutting is a mass media fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science writing about science at the Journal Sentinel this summer. She’s working on a doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.