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Mystery packets of seeds being sent to homes across world from China solved

A mystery involving thousands of packets of seeds being randomly delivered to people across both countries from China appears to have been solved.

The strange phenomenon gripped Britain and America last year, when unsolicited parcels were posted to across both countries from unfamiliar sellers.

At its peak, all 50 US states sent out warnings not to plant the contents over fears that some may be contain harmful substances.

The FBI even investigated the case, liaising with its Chinese counterparts to try and track down the parcels’ origins.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) went to lengths to identify what was inside the packages, finding more than a dozen plant species.

Osama El-Lissy, a member of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said back in August: “We have identified 14 different species of seeds, including mustard, cabbage, morning glory and some herbs, like mint, sage, rosemary, lavender, and then other seeds like hibiscus and roses”.

The parcels sparked a USDA probe and warnings across all 50 states

Around 100 households in England also received the packets, which usually had Chinese writing on them and were often labelled as containing jewellery.

Such a description would allow the packages to skip security checks and charges at the airport, fuelling suspicions that they might be dangerous.

But in an investigation for The Atlantic, health correspondent Chris Heath spoke to dozens of recipients – and found that the answer may be much simpler than anyone could have imagined.

At first, the most plausible theory seemed to be “brushing” – a kind of online scam whereby a seller creates fake sales in order to gain a higher placement in internet search listings.

The seeds had been sold on online sites including Amazon and Ali Express by Chinese companies
The seeds had been sold on online sites including Amazon and Ali Express by Chinese companies

In order for their products to appear higher in search results, sellers sometimes make fake accounts and purchase their own items themselves in a bogus transaction.

Then, instead of shipping the advertised item, they send a much cheaper item – seeds, for example – to a random address.

But as he dug deeper, Heath’s theory changed. When the recipients, all of whom were adamant they had never ordered the items, went through their purchase history, the vast majority appeared to have bought the seeds themselves – and then forgotten about them.

During the height of lockdown, many turned their attentions to the home and garden as they spent more time indoors.

Recipients had bought the seeds during lockdown and forgotten them
Recipients had bought the seeds during lockdown and forgotten them

It turned out that many of the people who had received the packets had bought them online during this period just as heavy delays began to hit postal services.

Some had unwittingly bought them from Chinese companies, so were thrown off by the Chinese writing on the package that arrived months later.

On having her memory jogged, stunned recipient Shayne Duggan said: “(My kids and I) were baking and sewing and doing all that kind of stuff … We weren’t going anywhere, we weren’t seeing anyone, we were hunkered down. That was the mode we were in, and that was the impetus: Oh, maybe we’ll plant some seeds”.

The USDA rejected Heath’s theory, but he remains convinced this is the most likely explanation.

El-Lissy said: “We continue to believe it is implausible that thousands of people around the globe ordered seeds and either forgot about them or lied about forgetting them.”

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