Mystery seeds from China

Mystery seeds from China

The mystery of the mystery seeds from China is starting to clear up as investigators are focusing on an internet scam for some and fear stoked by the unknown for others.

Not that the concerns have all evaporated, but the intensity of the worry that the Chinese were making a first strike attack on the U.S. by using Americans unwittingly planting Audrey IIs all over the place has subsided.

About two months ago, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry first reported that residentis around the state had received unsolicited packages of seeds originating from China.

Sounding like a sci-fi movie from 1950s, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry scrambled Friday when informed a St. Rose reside…

Since then about 400 specimens received in Louisiana and were turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forestry. But it wasn’t just Louisiana residents receiving the mysterious packets of unknown seeds.

Approximately 16,000 specimens have been received nationwide and about 5,000 species of seeds that have been identified. The USDA reports 44 countries of origin have been identified.

“According to our contacts at the USDA, so far, there have been very few weeds or species containing diseases which is good news. Anytime a foreign specimen is introduced, there is always a chance it may pose a risk to the agricultural industry or the environment and that is why it is so important we identify what is in the packages,” said Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain.

After investigating for several weeks, the USDA found two trends.

One avenue was that the seeds weren’t unsolicited but ordered online by consumers who were unaware that the seeds would actually be sent from a foreign country that wouldn’t be in compliance with U.S. import requirements, said Osama El-Lissy, the deputy administrator for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Plant Protection and Quarantine Program.

The second tranche of unknown Chinese seeds came as part of an internet “brushing” scam, El-Lissy said.

Online merchants create false buyer accounts and post positive reviews of their products to boost their rating on an e-commerce site. Before an e-commerce site will consider an order valid, a shipment must be initiated to complete the transaction.

Sellers carrying out brushing scams will often ship inexpensive items to complete these transactions, El-Lissy explained. 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.

E-commerce companies such as Amazon, eBay and Etsy, are working with the USDA on restrictions in selling foreign seeds or plants. The USDA and the U.S. Postal Service also are returning suspect seed packets to an international mail facility for formal action by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.