The U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn’t found any evidence that someone was deliberately trying to cause harm with unsolicited seed deliveries, according to an investigation report.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) evaluated thousands of reports of seed deliveries from all 50 states that began in July 2020. Many of the seeds were for human food.

APHIS found some of the seeds were sent to the United States unsolicited but others were ordered with people unaware they were coming from a foreign country. Most of the shipments were illegal because they entered the U.S. without a permit or phytosanitary certificate.

“Plants and seeds for planting purchased online from other countries can pose a significant risk to U.S. agriculture and natural resources because they can carry harmful insects and pathogens,” said Osama El-Lissy, plant protection and quarantine program deputy administrator.

Global scale
Officials believe the unordered packages are part of an internet brushing scam. Sellers will often ship inexpensive items to increase transactions. 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.

Canada, India, Israel, Brazil, Japan, Ireland, France, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom and Finland were some of the countries affected. Seeds appeared as if they had been shipped from China, Taiwan or Singapore. According to the labels, contents were often listed as jewelry or toys.

In Canada, seeds were from a range of plant species, including tomato, strawberry, rose and citrus, as well as some weed seeds common in the country such as shepherd’s purse and flixweed.

A French investigation found the plant species were common in Europe with no invasive exotic types found. Laboratory analyzes on some of the seeds did not find any regulated pests. The EU Commission is in contact with law enforcement agencies and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) about the issue.

Guidance to help compliance
The Finnish Food Authority (Ruokavirasto) reported that traces of genetically modified material were found in seeds studied in Denmark. Analysis in Brazil found live mites, the presence of three different types of fungi and two samples containing bacteria.

In the United States APHIS has been working with e-commerce companies to remove online sellers that illegally import propagative materials, including seeds. The agency has also been trying to ensure these companies, and the sellers who use their platforms, are complying with USDA import regulations.

APHIS is providing additional guidance to help online buyers and sellers comply with U.S. laws when they import seeds and live plants for planting from other countries. The information, available here, will help protect U.S. agriculture infrastructure and natural resources from potential invasive pest and disease threats.

The guidance explains buyer and seller responsibilities; outlines required documents, such as import permits and phytosanitary certificates; gives information on plant and seed species with additional import requirements; and lists which types of plants and seeds are not allowed to be imported into the country.

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