Alibaba, eBay Targeted in Chinese ‘Mystery Seed’ Mail Inquiry

  • Top Republican pushes e-commerce companies on prevention
  • Residents of all 50 states have been mailed unrequested seeds

China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and America’s eBay Inc. are in the crosshairs of a Republican-led investigation into mysterious seed packages sent to U.S. residents in recent months.

The two e-commerce companies received letters from House Oversight and Reform Committee ranking member James Comer (R-Ky.) late Wednesday, asking how they prevent illegal plant imports from abroad.

He pointed to Amazon.com Inc. as setting a precedent by restricting plant and seed imports, along with the listing or sale of those goods by non-U.S. residents. Foreign seeds could introduce invasive species or other environmental threats, Comer said. U.S. officials have also tied the shipments to identity theft.

“In the wake of these China seeds, Amazon took a commonsense approach to protecting American agriculture by no longer allowing their distribution on their site,” Comer said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “Now, it is time for Ebay and the Alibaba Group to commit to the same.”

Photo: USDA
These packages of seeds, sent to a U.S. resident, were tested by the U.S Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to determine if they carry any pests or diseases of concern to U.S. agriculture.

eBay’s current policy permits the sale of plants and seeds as long as they’re allowed in the shipping location, with the exception of select seeds, noxious weeds, and endangered plants. Alibaba has some restrictions on “protected flora and fauna,” but its policy doesn’t go into detail about seeds. Amazon, eBay, and Alibaba didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Agriculture Department noticed a significant increase in unsolicited seed shipments beginning in July, which also occurred in Canada, Australia, and the European Union. Agency officials suggested the incidents were likely large-scale cases of brushing, a scam in which sellers send unrequested merchandise to recipients and then write positive online reviews from fake accounts to enhance their ratings.

Comer’s letters also asked Alibaba and eBay for information on how they identify and sanction sellers that engage in brushing.

‘Mystery Seeds From China’

“When mystery seeds from China began landing in Americans’ mailboxes, we knew we had a problem,” Comer said. “An invasive plant species could wreak havoc and introduce unknown diseases to our local crops, livestock or ecosystem.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin contested that the packages came through the China Post, saying the postal service has obeyed rules that prohibit the sending and receiving of seeds, Bloomberg reported on July 28.

Still, Comer requested an update from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service on Aug. 4, calling it “essential” to find out if the Chinese Communist Party was involved.

“Congress must determine whether legislative action is necessary in light of such large numbers of seed packets having been introduced into the customs territory of the United States without being seized at the point of inspection,” he said in the letter to Agriculture Department Marketing and Regulatory Programs Under Secretary Greg Ibach.

No links to agro-terrorism have been found yet, the department reported. Its main concern is the potential for the seeds to introduce damaging pests or diseases that could harm U.S. agriculture, an APHIS spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday.

The agency collected more than 16,000 seed packets nationwide to date, and received more than 11,000 related emails and calls from residents in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., as of Oct. 2, the official added.

Mustard, cabbage, mint, sage, and rosemary are among the plant species the Agriculture Department identified out of the samples, said Osama El-Lissy, an APHIS official, on July 29.

Federal, State Response

Customs and Border Protection, state agriculture departments, and other federal agencies have joined the Agriculture Department in its efforts to investigate the packages, which are often mislabeled as other products, like beads and jewelry.

The APHIS urged Americans not to plant the seeds, but to send them instead in for government testing.

U.S. Warns Against Planting Mystery Seeds From China

The Agriculture Department is working with e-commerce companies to remove online sellers that illegally import or facilitate the import of propagative materials, including seeds, and intensifying its efforts to ensure all are complying with federal regulations, an APHIS spokesperson said.

Government officials are also in contact with their counterparts in China to determine the package senders, the agency said.

With assistance from Kellie Lunney

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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