Some in the U.S. mink industry see COVID-19 as a growth opportunity
WASHINGTON D.C.––Will the COVID-19 delta variant finally kill mink farming in the U.S., after COVID-19 in all forms has killed more than 633,000 Americans?
Or will HR 4310, dubbed the MINKS Act as acronym for “Minks in Narrowly Kept Spaces Are Superspreaders Act,” find enough votes in Congress to deliver the belated coup-de-grace?
Or will forty-odd years of dwindling consumer demand for fur finally do the job?
Or is mink farming, as someone once said of boxing, too dirty to die?
Will the mink industry stagger on through many more rounds of an apparently endless death spiral, having already contracted from producing once ubiquitous mink stoles and floor-length coats to selling more mink eyelashes than any actual garment?
COVID-19 found in fur farm dust
Strong confirmation that mink farming is a dirty industry, especially as regards COVID-19, came in the July 30, 2021 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine.
“Air sampling was performed at infected Dutch mink farms, at farm premises, and at nearby residential sites,” explained the three Dutch authors of a paper entitled “Occupational and environmental exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in and around infected mink farms.”
Inside those farms, the authors reported, “considerable levels of SARS-CoV-2 RNA were
found in airborne dust, especially in personal inhalable dust samples. Most of the settling dust samples tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 RNA,” specifically in 75 of 92 samples, or 82%.
“SARS-CoV-2 RNA was not detected in outdoor air samples,” the Dutch researchers wrote, “except for those collected near the entrance of the most recently infected farm.”
In sum, infected mink might have little risk of directly infecting human neighbors of mink farms, but appear to be very likely to infect mink farm workers, who might then infect other members of the public.
Coronavirus mutated in mink
“Last year,” observed Meg Kinnard of Associated Press, “the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control issued new guidance to curb the spread of the coronavirus between minks and humans. The agency warned that when COVID-19 starts spreading on a mink farm, the large numbers of animal infections means ‘the virus can accumulate mutations more quickly in minks and spread back into the human population.’”
Recalled Kinnard, “Denmark reported last year that 12 people had been sickened by a variant of the coronavirus that had distinct genetic changes also seen in mink.
“There have been several mink-related coronavirus cases in the U.S.,” Kinnard mentioned. “In December 2020, a mink caught outside an Oregon farm tested positive for low-levels of the coronavirus. State officials said they believed the animal had escaped from a small farm already under quarantine because of a coronavirus outbreak among mink and humans.”
Is CDC downplaying the risk?
In addition, Kinnard reported, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention [CDC] found that “a mink on a Michigan farm ‘and a small number of people’ were infected with a coronavirus ‘that contained mink-related mutations,’ but concluded that, ‘there is no evidence that mink are playing a significant role in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to people.’”
But even if mink are not directly infecting many people, mink may be incubators for more new COVID-19 variants that might keep the sometimes deadly coronavirus circulating––like the delta variant, occurring most often among people who have already been fully vaccinated.
And just because the highly infectious COVID-19 coronavirus has not yet spread widely from U.S. mink farms does not mean it cannot and will not.
U.S. mink farmers urged to expand
Ohio State University professor of food, agricultural & biological engineering Karen Manci suggested in the April 17, 2021 edition of China Focus that the U.S. mink industry should expand to fill a market void left by the loss of European mink pelt production, in competition with Chinese farmers.
“In China,” Manci wrote, “no COVID-19 cases have been reported among mink. Before the COVID-19 crisis, China was the second biggest mink producer behind Denmark, with about 8,000 farms and 5 million animals, earning about $50 billion per year. After the European outbreak, the Chinese government started providing COVID-19 tests for mink. When Denmark started to slaughter infected animals, the price of China’s mink increased 30 to 50 percent.”
“Taking advantage of the recent surge in global mink fur prices following the Danish cull,” affirmed Joan Schaffner for the American Bar Association web site, “farmers in China have resumed breeding mink on their 8,000 farms, housing some five million animals.”
Nearly 1,000 mink workers infected
Despite “the early warning signs from Europe” in mid-2020, Manci recalled, “the U.S. took a wait and see approach to the mink population. By August 2020, the first infected mink were found on a farm in Utah. By the end of November 2020, 16 mink farms in four states – Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin and Michigan – were infected with COVID-19. Several hundred mink died in Wisconsin; 644 mink farmers and 338 mink pelters were infected with coronavirus.”
Manci did not cite her source for the data, but ANIMALS 24-7 tracked it down.
The totals of infected workers Manci cited appear to be global during 2020, tabulated by the World Health Organization, not specific to the outbreaks in Wisconsin.
“No indemnity programs are in place for U.S. mink,” Manci continued, “where the government pays for the losses to keep the farm viable.”
State health officials don’t know where mink farms are
The Wisconsin COVID-19 outbreaks on mink farms, pointed out Kate Golden for Wisconsin Watch in January 2021, “shone light on an industry that has for years operated so discreetly in Wisconsin — the nation’s top pelt producer — that even the officials in charge of animal health didn’t know where all of the state’s 19 mink farms were. Those farms are neither regulated nor licensed by the state.”
“Since the first mink got sick on a Dutch mink ranch in April,” Golden recounted, “millions of the animals have died or been culled on nearly 400 ranches across Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Lithuania, Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Canada.”
But most of the infected mink ranches in Europe have been bigger, closer to each other and to human populating centers, than most of the remaining U.S. mink ranches.
Therefore the many now closed European mink ranches were more likely to spread infection than U.S. counterparts.
20 million mink dead on 430 farms
Recognizing the risk, “In early November, Denmark deployed police and armed forces to farms to cull both healthy and unhealthy mink, killing some 2.85 million within a week,” summarized Joan Schaffner for the American Bar Association.
“Fur farms are already banned in the U.K., Austria and Germany,” Schaffner continued. “The Netherlands, in the wake of the pandemic, fast-tracked its existing plan to phase out fur farming from 2023 to 2021. France announced in October that it will ban mink fur farming by 2025 and Poland may do so as well.”
The last mink farm in Estonia reportedly “pelted out” and closed on June 1, 2021.
At that point COVID-19 outbreaks had been reported on more than 430 mink farms worldwide. More than 20 million mink had died or been culled to contain the outbreaks.
In Wisconsin, meanwhile, “researchers found the virus passed from people to mink and back again, mutating as it went,” wrote Golden of Wisconsin Watch. “Some people got a genetic variant dubbed Cluster-5 that looked extra nasty, because the virus’s spikes had changed in ways that made it harder for monoclonal antibody treatments to recognize the virus, at least in the lab.”
Cluster-5 was in fact the same COVID-19 variant that caused Denmark to order the liquidation of what had been the world’s most prosperous mink industry.
Though neither the U.S. federal government nor any state government compelled U.S. producers to cull mink and downsize their breeding operations, most did anyway.
Observed Hope Kirwan of Wisconsin Public Radio on July 27, 2021, “While Wisconsin remains the nation’s top producer of mink pelts, production fell by more than 60% last year, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“Wisconsin mink farms produced 403,540 pelts in 2020, a 61% decline from 2019,” Kirwan said. “Nationally, mink production was down 49% in 2020. Wisconsin producers made up almost a third of the total pelts produced.”
Responding to the pile-up of data indicting mink farms as, at minimum, a threat to make an existing global public health crisis harder to control, House Appropriations Committee chair Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat representing coastal Connecticut, and Congressional Representative Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican, on July 1, 2021 introduced the MINKS Act.
The MINKS Act would amend the Lacey Act, in effect since 1900, to recognize mink as wildlife, regardless of whether they are captive-bred, and thereby forbid possession, sale, or other exchange of mink, except by zoos and laboratories for scientific research.
The MINKS Act debuted with eight co-sponsors, including Raúl Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who has chaired the House Natural Resources Committee since 2019.
The MINKS Act, assigned bill number HR 4310, was immediately referred to the House Natural Resources Committee, where it will likely remain unless Grijalva can drum up a lot more support for it than was immediately evident.
“May be cursed with COVID-19 forever”
But as medical inventor Gary Michelson, M.D., observed, as founder of the California-based Michelson Center for Public Policy, “If COVID-19 spreads from farmed mink into the large wild and feral mink populations across the northern hemisphere, humans may be cursed with COVID-19 risk forever.”
Among animal advocates, Michelson may be best known for offering the $25 million Michelson Prize in Reproductive Biology, dangled since October 2008 for the development of a single-dose nonsurgical sterilant, preferably to be administered by injection, that will be effective and safe in both male and female dogs and cats for 10 to 20 years.
Michelson, through his Found Animals Foundation, has funded further investigation of several contending approaches.
Mink sales down by half in two years before COVID-19
Explained AWI Quarterly, the membership magazine of the Animal Welfare Institute, of the current size of the mink industry, “In 2017 there were 236 mink operations in the country that produced about 3.3 million pelts, generating about $120 million. The industry has declined significantly since then, generating only $59.2 million in 2019 [the last year before COVID-19] as a result of shrinking consumer demand for real fur and a commitment by major fashion brands such as Gucci, Versace, and Giorgio Armani to go fur-free.
“But mink farms continue to operate in a number of states, including (as of 2017) Wisconsin (with 67 such farms), Utah (55), Idaho (23), Oregon (17), and Minnesota (13).”
This was a count of facilities, not farmers. Wisconsin mink farmers operated an average of just over three facilities each. Such appears to be the case in other mink-farming states as well.
Pelt prices up, but sales decline
Added Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block and Humane Society Legislative Fund president Sara Amundson in a July 28, 2021 joint blog posting, “The number of mink killed last year for their fur dropped 49% to 1.4 million, the lowest number on record according to USDA reports going back to 1975.”
Even though the temporary mink pelt scarcity resulting from European mink farm closures drove auction prices up, “The overall value of the U.S. mink trade dropped to $47 million, a 19% decline from 2019,” Block and Amundson added.
“While the pandemic has had a significant impact on the global fur trade,” Block and Amundson noted, “this downward spiral started well before 2020.”
Block and Amundson anticipated that the temporary increase in pelt prices would be “short-lived,” and not sufficient to encourage remaining mink farmers to scale back up, or to bring out-of-business mink farmers back.
Avoiding fur like the plague
“Since the end of March 2021,” Block and Amundson mentioned, “we’ve seen fur-free announcements from some of the biggest names in fashion. Saks Fifth Avenue, Valentino, Neiman Marcus, Canada Goose, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Holt Renfrew, Moose Knuckles and Mackage have all proudly announced the end of fur. We haven’t seen this sort of momentum since Gucci, Michael Kors, Yoox Net-a-Porter, Jimmy Choo and Burlington Coat Factory announced fur-free policies in 2017. That inspired a new wave of fur-free announcements the following year from brands like Chanel, Versace, Coach, Burberry and so many others.”
In short, both consumers and retailers who long resisted going fur-free are now avoiding fur like the plague.
The COVID-19 plague, meanwhile, rages on. In British Columbia, Canada, for example, three mink farms are reportedly under quarantine and the entire mink population of another was killed in early 2021 due to outbreaks. No new mink barns are allowed to open; existing mink barns may not expand, by order of the provincial health department.
Will trapping reclaim market share?
If the entire mink farming industry goes down, whether directly due to COVID-19, legislation, or because the public lastingly turns against fur to the point that raising mink becomes unprofitable, will fur trapping make a comeback?
Recent South Dakota experience suggests otherwise, even with bounties of $10 offered year round by the state for the tails of raccoons, striped skunks, badgers, opossums, and red fox, on the pretext that they eat pheasant and duck eggs, thereby discouraging human hunters.
The bounties have reportedly been claimed by fewer than 3,000 trappers, about half as many as were active in South Dakota during the 1970s, when trapped pelt prices and trapping participation were at peak.