How you view an unexpected package depends a lot on your age, and perhaps what you do. As a government worker, most unsolicited mail my father received was complaints, or the odd violent rant. If you have an artist for a friend, like me, an envelope you weren’t expecting usually contains a card with a hand-drawn pair of food friends–jam and peanut butter, macaroni and cheese. But there’s a darker side. Maybe you remember the anthrax sent through the mail in 2001. Maybe you watched a dramatization of the case of Ted Kaczynski, the now-infamous unabomber. In the summer of 2020 Americans are facing a new rash of suspicious mailings, with no idea of how dangerous they could be.
In all 50 states, residents are reporting receiving mysterious packages they did not order. Inside each of these packages–seeds of an unknown type. The writing on the packages appears to be Chinese, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. (Both Mandarin and Cantonese, the two most commonly spoken Chinese dialects are written in the same way.) According to Nikki Fried, Commissioner of Agriculture & Consumer Services, as of July 28th, 2020, Floridians have received over 630 of these seed packages. (1, 2, 3)
The Danger Of The Seeds
Ryan Quarles, Kentucky’s Agricultural Commissioner, says that the seeds could threaten “agricultural production in the United States. We have the safest, most abundant food supply in the world and we need to keep it that way.”
“Unsolicited seeds could be invasive and introduce unknown diseases to local plants, harm livestock, or threaten our environment,” says Quarles. “At this point in time, we don’t have enough information to know if this is a hoax, a prank, an internet scam, or an act of agricultural bioterrorism.”
Virginia’s Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services urges people: “do not plant these seeds.” Echoing Quarles’ fears, they write that “invasive species wreak havoc on the environment, displace or destroy native plants and insects and severely damage crops.”
They ask recipients of the seeds to “prevent their introduction… reducing both the risk of invasive species infestations and the cost to control and mitigate those infestations.” (1, 4)
USDA Investigates The Mystery
The United States Department of Agriculture released a statement on July 28th, 2020. It says that “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.” They urge anyone who receives the mysterious seeds should “immediately” contact their state regulator or APHIS. However, the threat might not be as dire as the worst-case scenario.
“At this time,” the statement reads, “we don’t have any evidence indicating this is something other than a ‘brushing scam.’”
A brushing scam is when a seller mails out items, then provides positive reviews with the recipient’s order number.
Luckily, your questions will be answered soon. “USDA. . . will test [the package] contents and determine if they contain anything that could be of concern to U.S. agriculture or the environment.” (5)