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USDA photo / A package of seeds sent unsolicited to a resident in the U.S. is shown. Unsolicited seeds, labeled as a variety of things such as beads and jewelry, have been arriving in mailboxes around the nation, prompting investigation by the USDA.

Federal agencies are continuing to investigate the contents and origins of thousands of seed packets shipped unsolicited from China to citizens across the U.S., including people in the Chattanooga area.

Although experts have found very few problems with the seeds they have inspected so far, they still warn citizens not to plant unsolicited seeds and request that they report or send them to their state departments of agriculture or plant health director for inspection.

The concern is that the seed packets may contain invasive species or pests harmful to U.S. crops or the environment.

"It's not anything to take lightly," said Tom Stebbins, University of Tennessee/Tennessee State University Extension agent for Hamilton County, of the problems invasive species can cause. "If it transfers to a crop, that could affect our livelihood."

Stebbins, along with Kellie Wilson with the University of Georgia Walker County Extension Office, said their offices have received calls from local residents who received unsolicited seeds.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture news release, officials believe the unsolicited seed packages may be part of a "brushing" scam, in which online sellers send unsolicited items in order to write false reviews by "verified customers" to boost sales.

Osama El-Lissy, deputy administrator for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services' Plant Protection and Quarantine program, said in a news release that the USDA has inspected only a small percentage of the seeds it has collected from U.S. recipients. As of Aug. 12, the agency had received more than 9,000 emails and 925 packets from U.S. residents who had received unsolicited seeds from China.

Agency botanists have identified seeds of two types of plants, dodder and water spinach, that are considered noxious weeds. Another seed they inspected contained leaf beetle larvae. All are common species in the U.S., he said.

USDA officials are working with their counterparts in China to determine who is shipping the seeds and to stop future shipments. They have determined which companies are sending the seeds, but they do not know the backgrounds of those companies, El-Lissy said.

The USDA is also working with U.S. customs and border officials to try to intercept any packages that may arrive in the future, according to a news release.

"At this time, TDA has no reason to suspect ill intent surrounding the shipment of seeds, but we do want to take every precaution to be sure there's no invasive or otherwise threatening plant species present," said Kim Doddridge, public information officer for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

Tennessee residents who receive unsolicited shipments of seeds are asked to double-bag the seed packets and send them to the office of state plant health director Jason Watkins at 1410 Kensington Square Court, Suite 101, Murfreesboro, TN 37130.

Wilson said Georgia residents who receive unsolicited seed packages should call the Georgia Department of Agriculture Seed Lab at 229-386-3145 or email SeedLab@agr.georgia.gov.

People who do not want to mail the seeds are asked to double-bag the packets and throw them away, and to report them through the online form at tinyurl.com/ReportSeeds.

If the seeds are already planted, residents should dig up the plant, double-bag it and throw it away.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508. Follow her on Twitter @emcrisman.

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USDA photo / Scientists with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's National Identification Services are analyzing the seed packages to determine if they contain plant pests.
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