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GTA woman mystified by bag of seeds in her mail — so are federal officials worried about invasive species

Java D'Ignazio of Mississauga is just one of hundreds of people in this country who've received packages of seeds in the mail, apparently from foreign countries. That's got federal officials worried about invasive species and pests that could ravage Canadian farms and forests.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency probing at least 350 reports of unsolicited packages of seeds

Java D’Ignazio received a small bag of tiny seeds in the mail and says not knowing what they are and where they came from makes her uneasy. (Angelina King/CBC)

The small grey package struck Java D'Ignazio as unusual — it was very thin, had no customs documentation and a strange scribble over where the sender is supposed to sign. She thought maybe one of her children sent her a gift in the mail. 

It had her correct name, address and phone number and said the contents were one studded earring valued at $4.91. But when she opened it, she found a small bag of tiny, reddish-brown seeds, apparently sent from Singapore.

D'Ignazio is just one of hundreds Canadians who have received similar packages of seeds. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says it knows of at least 350 cases and it believes there are many more. The agency is worried the seeds might belong to an invasive species or introduce harmful pests to the country, and that makes D'Ignazio uncomfortable.

"It's the unknown," she said, holding the package as she spoke to CBC News outside her home in Mississauga, Ont. 

"I have them in my hand, but I've double bagged them and I'm going to wash my hands again. But there's an uncertainty." 

The package of seeds has Java D’Ignazio's correct name, address and phone number on it. (Angelina King/CBC)

D'Ignazio confirmed with her children the package, which she received late last week, wasn't from them. They told her it reminded them of something they had read about in U.S. news reports  —  residents in all 50 U.S. states receiving different types of seeds in the mail, largely from China.

After discovering the seeds, she followed advice she'd read from U.S. authorities to bag the package and wash her hands.

'Too many steps'

Then, desperate to get answers, D'Ignazio says she contacted the CFIA, but no one answered and the mailbox was full. She called the local post office, the federal agriculture and agri-food ministry and Peel police.       

She says no one gave clear instructions on what to do. One official told her not to bring the seeds in, and that someone would contact her. Another told her to throw them in the garbage, she says.

D'Ignazio still has no answers. She's been keeping the seeds in a third bag on her balcony in the meantime. 

"It made me feel like there's too many steps for when there is an immediate issue," she said. 

As she waits to find out what to do with the seeds, D’Ignazio has placed them in a third bag and stores them on her balcony. (Supplied/Java D’Ignazio)

The CFIA released a statement on Wednesday of this week, five days after D'Ignazio received the package, saying it's investigating reports of the unsolicited packages of seeds and warning people not to plant them. 

The statement says if people receive a package they should contact the regional CFIA office immediately, and keep the seeds, package and mailing label until a CFiA inspector contacts them with further instructions.

"It's almost a week after I received the package," D'Ignazio said of the statement. "I wonder how many people out there have received it, planted [the seeds] or discarded it." 

She says she still hasn't been able to contact the CFIA about her case.

"There should be a very simple protocol if it's so important for agriculture and the environment," she said. 

Seeds could be invasive, harmful

The CFIA is warning people not to plant seeds from unknown origins.

"These species can invade agricultural and natural areas, causing serious damage to our plant resources," the agency said.

Sarah Rang is the executive director of the Invasive Species Centre, a non-profit organization based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. that aims to protect the country from plants, animals and other organisms from outside its borders. She says invasive species often don't have local enemies, can multiply quickly and cause problems for agriculture, forestry, recreation and tourism.

"We are very concerned about invasive species, not only from the damage that they can have to our beautiful landscapes, but also economically it costs a lot of money to try to control their spread," she said. 

Rang says it's estimated damage from invasive species costs Ontario alone $3.6 billion a year with much of that coming from insects damaging agricultural land and forests.

Fake labels used, China's postal service says

The CFIA says the origin and nature of the seeds have yet to be confirmed, but China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson was asked about the U.S. packages in a news conference earlier this week. 

Wang Wenbin said China's postal service discovered the address labels used were fake and that it contacted the United States Postal Service asking for the packages to be sent back to China for investigation. 

Canada Post confirmed to CBC News Thursday that China's postal service asked it to "set aside suspicious mail for authentication," adding the request has been made to other postal services around the world.

As for D'Ignazio, all the international attention the problem is getting has her concerned.

"That to me seems like it's a bigger issue than just a fake package."

About the Author

Angelina King is a reporter with CBC Toronto where she covers a wide range of stories. She has a particular interest in crime, legal and justice issues and human interest stories. She previously reported on national and international news. Angelina got her start in her home city of Saskatoon where she spent much of her time covering the courts. You can contact her at angelina.king@cbc.ca or @angelinaaking

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