New information (7/30/2020): California Agricultural Commissioner's offices are collecting seeds locally. Please contact your county office (https://cacasa.org/county/).
In the past few weeks, there has been a rash of reports from citizens in several states (at least 27) regarding packages of seed apparently sent from China, and in some cases, Uzbekistan (1). The packages have arrived without proper documentation and labeling and appear unsolicited (no orders for the seeds were placed).
The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is currently investigating, along with State departments of agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, as well as associated federal departments.
Why all of the concern?
Normally, when seeds are imported legally into the United States, they are inspected and sometimes quarantined by USDA's APHIS, and are governed by several permitting and labeling restrictions (2). Some plant species are completely banned from importation, such as those on the federal noxious weeds list, as well as those that are considered parasitic. The reason for this regulation is that many plant pathogens can be seed-borne, including viruses, fungi, and bacteria (to name a few). Some of these pathogens can devastate native plant populations and some of these can devastate agricultural operations.
If seeds of unknown origin and unknown identification are planted, they can potentially spread these pathogens (viruses, fungi, bacteria, etc.), or escape and potentially become weeds, which can have devastating environmental and economic effects.
What to do if you receive these seeds?
The USDA is asking people to not plant the seeds. Keep them in a sealed plastic bag, and if you opened the original package, reseal them into a new plastic bag, and wash your hands if you touched the seeds. Some pathogens can be transferred to other plants via human hands, in particular Tomato Mosaic Virus (ToMV) and Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV), which are both highly important agricultural pests (3). Keep the original packaging and contact your state's plant health director (4) or state's APHIS director (5) for directions. Do not dispose of the seeds, as by placing them in the garbage, they will end up in the landfill, with the same potential for spread of the plants or pathogens as described earlier.
For California, the APHIS contact is:
Helene R. Wright
USDA, APHIS, PPQ
650 Capitol Mall, Suite 6-400
Sacramento, CA 95814-4712
Phone: (916) 930-5500
Fax: (916) 930-5539
The California plant health director is:
Plant Health and Pest Prevention Services
California Department of Food & Agriculture
1220 N St., Room 221
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone: (916) 654-0317
Fax: (916) 654-0986
They can also be reported directly to the USDA by calling their Anti-Smuggling Hotline number at (800) 877-3835 or by sending an email to SITC.Mail@aphis.usda.gov (6).