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Agricultural officials urge caution about unsolicited seeds

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 14 types of seeds have been sent unsolicited to the U.S. and other countries in recent weeks. (Submitted Photo)

Don’t plant or throw away any seeds that you didn’t order or request that arrive in the mail.

Those are the instructions of federal and state agricultural officials, as a new concern is facing the world.

Unsolicited seed packages have been arriving in several countries and 22 U.S. states, including New Mexico.

The seed packages could be nothing more than a sales ploy, according to U.S. and state agricultural officials, but people are nevertheless asked to behave cautiously.

“The main concern is that the potential of these seeds to introduce pests and diseases that could be harmful to U.S. agriculture and the environment,” said Osama El-Lissy, the deputy director of the Plant Protection and Quarantine Program, part of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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El-Lissy gave an interview on USDA Radio Wednesday.

According to the USDA, the seed package labeling materials indicate the seeds are being sent from China.

New Mexico was first alerted to the problem Friday, said Katie Laney, assistant division director in the Agricultural Production Services Division of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA).

Since then, the department has received about 175 reports of individuals who have received the seed packages, with one sample received by its lab Wednesday. The reports have not been broken down by county yet.

The department website indicates that “the seeds are unknown and could be a pathway for introductions of new invasive plant species and new plant diseases to the state.”

Laney said some New Mexicans reported receiving the seeds more than a month ago, while others said they received them days ago.

El-Lissy said during the radio interview that at least 14 different types of seeds are known to have been delivered to addresses in the United States, Canada, Australia and the European Union. They include mustard, cabbage, morning glory, mint, sage, rosemary, lavender, hibiscus and roses.

Tests are occurring to determine whether the seeds represent any sort of danger. The NMDA lab has not yet received results on the sample it received.

The USDA is also working with other state and federal agencies such as the Homeland Security Department and its Customs and Border Protection division to investigate the situation.

Laney confirmed that U.S. and state regulations prohibit the international shipment of seeds in this manner. She said all agricultural commodities, including seeds, must be accompanied by a phyto-sanitary certificate indicating that the products are free of pests and diseases and comply with U.S. standards.

She said those requirements probably have not been met because many of the packages have been reported as being imported as jewelry, beads, sequins or electrical connectors.

In addition, Laney said, seeds imported in the United States must have clear labeling containing the common name of the seed, a lot number, the foreign nation or state of origin, the percent of seeds in the package, a germination rate, and the last date of germinating rate determination. The unsolicited seed packages either have no labels or labels that say only “sunflower” or something to that effect, Laney said.

While recipients have not violated any regulations, they are asked to provide information so that the seeds can be identified and tracked.

There is certainly the possibility that the seeds could have been sent by companies that simply want to push up their sales numbers, El-Lissy said.

“We do not have evidence indicating that this is anything other than a brushing scam, where people receive unsolicited items from a seller, who then posts false customer reviews to boost their sales,” he said.

People who receive the packages are asked to send unopened seed packages and all mailing materials to the NMDA, which will forward them to the USDA, as well. If the seed package already has been opened, the seeds, packaging and mailing label should be placed in a sealed plastic bag until a state official gives further instructions.

Seeds are not to be thrown away because they could germinate at a landfill, Laney said.

If the seeds have been planted, state officials are advising New Mexico residents to dig them up and destroy any sprouting plants. If the plant has matured and has its own seeds, Laney advises people to contact a state official before digging it up.

To report receiving a package, contact the New Mexico Department of Agriculture at nmagsec@nmda.nmsu.edu or 575-646-3007. Seeds and their shipping materials can be sent to the department at New Mexico Department of Agriculture, Laboratory Division, Attn: Tim Darden, MSC 3 LD, P.O. Box 30005, 3190 S. Espina St., Las Cruces, NM 88003-8005.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.