ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 13 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture has discovered noxious weeds and a bug larva in mystery seeds that were sent unsolicited from China to thousands of residents across the United States.
The weeds and the bug already are found in this country, although they are considered undesirable.
The weeds can displace native plants and deplete nutrients for native plants. The bug larva was a type of leaf beetle that consumes and destroys leaves of native plants, agriculture officials said.
For those reasons, the USDA warned that recipients should not open packages due to the unknown risks involved.
"We have received more than 9,000 emails from private citizens across the country who report receiving unsolicited seeds, and we have collected 925 packages," Osama El-Lissy, the USDA's deputy administrator for plant protection and quarantine, said Wednesday in department audio recordings.
Most of the seeds examined were common garden seeds, like marigolds and herbs. The weeds were a variety of water spinach and dodder, a stringy vine that can choke out large native plants and even large areas of native woodland, the USDA said.
The agency said it continues to examine Chinese seeds at plant inspection stations situated in every state, where any problems would be contained. Eventually, the seeds will be incinerated.
Agriculture officials are treating the seeds so carefully because biologists have warned that any of them might carry invasive pests, fungus or even plant viruses that could devastate entire crops.
"When you look at the billion-dollar consequences, it's just devastating, said Jonathan Crane, professor and tropical fruit specialist at the University of Florida, who is based near Miami.
"The impact isn't felt by the big commercial entities -- it's felt by the farmers and consumers, and it can put the food supply in jeopardy," Crane said, explaining that many farmers operate on thin profit margins unlike large agriculture businesses and processors.
Crane said the movement of agriculture products is tightly regulated, and it is illegal to bring foreign plants into the country without a permit. He said citrus greening disease, which has wiped out 60 percent of Florida's citrus groves, came from citrus tree cuttings smuggled into south Florida.
"Do not open the seeds, and do not throw them in the trash, because they might sprout in a landfill," he said.
Florida alone reported almost that 2,000 people received packages, with the heaviest concentration in the Tampa area.
Many of the recipients seem to have previously ordered seeds online through Chinese companies without realizing the origin of the product, said Trevor Smith, director of the Division of Plant Industry for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The USDA has said the seeds appear to be part of an online "brushing scheme," in which online sellers mail unsolicited items to consumers and use the delivery confirmation to create fake positive reviews of their services and products.
"State inspectors are going out to pick up packets at extension offices and at homes, if people want that," Smith said. "We're delivering seeds to the USDA at this point, because they want to do the research."
The state is encouraging all Floridians to report the receipt of any seeds to their local University of Florida extension office or via the USDA's new webpage, on which people can report they received the seeds, Smith said.