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USDA Clarifies Rules Concerning Unsolicited Seed Packages

Clint Thompson USDA-APHIS

After a months-long investigation into thousands of reports from people who received unsolicited seed packages in the mail last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (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.

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APHIS published the site after evaluating thousands of reports of unsolicited seed deliveries that began in July 2020. While APHIS confirms that some of the seeds were sent to the U.S. unsolicited, others were seeds ordered by recipients unaware they were coming from a foreign country. But most of the seed shipments were illegal, because they entered the country without a permit or a phytosanitary certificate.

The new guidance explains buyer and seller responsibilities; outlines required documents, such as import permits and phytosanitary certificates; provides information on plant and seed species that have additional import requirements; and makes clear which types of plants and seeds are not allowed to be imported into the U.S.

APHIS found no evidence that someone was intentionally trying to harm U.S. agriculture with these shipments. In fact, there is no correlation between where the seeds were sent and U.S. critical agriculture infrastructure. APHIS officials believe the unsolicited packages are part of an internet “brushing scam.” Sellers carrying out brushing scams 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.

APHIS has been working with e-commerce companies to remove the online sellers that are participating in the illegal import of propagative materials, including seeds, and to make sure the sellers who use their platforms, are complying with USDA import regulations.

The information, available on the APHIS website, will also help protect critical U.S. agriculture infrastructure and natural resources from potential invasive pest and disease threats.