KOKOMO, Ind. (WISH) — Cathy Stover thought she received a free gift when she checked her mail on July 18 and found two packets, each containing several small bags of seeds.
She had ordered gardening supplies from an online seller in April and wondered if free seeds were part of a new promotion.
“I thought some of them looked like little hibiscus seeds,” she said.
Stover, an amateur gardener who likes to decorate her office at the Kokomo Event and Conference Center with fresh flowers, thought about planting them.
But she couldn’t shake her concerns about the packaging; there was no recipient name or address, and she couldn’t decipher the shipping label, printed in Chinese.
Stover set the seeds aside.
A week and a half later, she was startled by a News 8 report about similar seed packets appearing in mailboxes across the nation, prompting federal authorities and at least 27 states to issue warnings.
“I took this, when I heard [the] report, much more serious,” Stover said.
Don Robison, seed administrator at the Office of the Indiana State Chemist (OISC), instructed Hoosiers who received unsolicited seed packets from China not to plant, discard or destroy the seeds.
“We are concerned, primarily, about the seed either being noxious weed seeds or… an invasive species,” he said, adding local agriculture could be threatened by foreign disease.
In a letter to Attorney General William Barr, U.S. Rep. Jim Banks urged the Department of Justice to investigate the origin of the seeds.
“At a time of increasing great power competition, it’s crucial that every arm of the federal government vigilantly monitor potential aggression from the Chinese Community Party. We know for a fact that the Communist Party has spied on and sabotaged U.S. industries ranging from defense manufacturing to pharmaceutical drugs. It’s not farfetched [sic] for China to also target our agricultural sector, one of the strongest in the world,” the Republican congressman from Indiana wrote.
On Monday, OISC officials said two Hoosiers reported receiving unsolicited seeds.
By Tuesday night, the state had received approximately 50 reports.
“Why me?” Stover asked. “Why, randomly, did I get them? Were they put in [my mailbox] by the post office? They don’t have my name, my address [or] anything on them, yet they were in my mailbox.”
Mary Dando, a regional spokesperson for the USPS, said the postal service’s law enforcement branch was aware of the seed packets and “consulting with federal, state and local partners.”
It was unclear if a mail carrier delivered the seed packets to Stover. Her home surveillance system does not cover the area around her mailbox.
Photos provided to News 8 by Carmel and Greenwood residents who reported receiving seeds show their addresses printed on the packets.
The USDA emailed a statement to News 8 in response to requests for comment:
“USDA is aware that people across the country have received suspicious, unsolicited packages of seed that appear to be coming from China. 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. USDA urges anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds to immediately contact their State plant regulatory official or APHIS State plant health director. Do not plant seeds from unknown origins.
At this time, we don’t have any evidence indicating this is something other than a “brushing scam” where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost sales. USDA is currently collecting seed packages from recipients and will test their contents and determine if they contain anything that could be of concern to U.S. agriculture or the environment.
USDA is committed to preventing the unlawful entry of prohibited seeds and protecting U.S. agriculture from invasive pests and noxious weeds. Visit the APHIS’ website to learn more about USDA’s efforts to stop agricultural smuggling and promote trade compliance.”
***HOOSIERS ARE INSTRUCTED TO SEND ALL SEEDS AND PACKAGING TO THE USDA FIELD OFFICE IN FRANKLIN***
USDA APHIS PPQ
3059 North Morton Street
Franklin, IN 46131