Mink farms not only cause immense animal suffering, these coronavirus reservoirs put human lives at risk, say animal welfare groups.

Photo – Vier Photen

COVID-19: Why the EU must end mink farming

11 January 2021

Mink farms not only cause immense animal suffering, these coronavirus reservoirs put human lives at risk, say animal welfare groups

By FOUR PAWS, Eurogroup for Animals and Fur Free Alliance 

A year ago, no one would have imagined that the coronavirus pandemic would hit the world, affecting more than 91 million people, and killing more than 1.9 million. People are looking forward to a better 2021 for their countries, their families and themselves. However, worries about the long-term impact of COVID-19 persist.

In 2021, urgent action must be taken to halt the spread and to eliminate potential sources of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Farms where mink (Neovison vison) are bred for fur production, beside causing immense suffering to animals, are coronavirus reservoirs.

Risk to humans and animals

Farmed mink are highly susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection. They catch it from humans, pass it on to each other and spread it back to humans.

“The poor living conditions on fur farms, which keep animals In unnatural close proximity facilitate the spread of the disease.”

The first cases were identified in the Netherlands in April 2020. Since then, more than 390 mink farms have been infected by the virus in Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Spain, Italy, France and, most recently, new infections have been identified in Poland and Lithuania. More mink farms are affected in the U.S. and Canada.

The poor living conditions on fur farms, which keep animals in unnatural close proximity, facilitate the spread of the disease.

“Clearly, this issue causes significant danger for humans and terrible suffering for animals. On fur farms, mink are crammed into tiny cages. Specifically, 0.255 square meters are available for each animal,” said Thomas Pietsch, fur expert at FOUR PAWS. “Stressed or weakened animals, crammed closely together with thousands of conspecifics, provide the ideal breeding ground for infectious diseases.” 

Affected countries have taken drastic measures. The Netherlands moved up its ban on fur farming to 2021 from 2024 and has culled all its mink. Ireland decided to cull its farmed mink population pre-emptively, likely ending the industry in the country. Hungary also announced a ban on mink and other species farming as a precautionary measure.

The issue has turned the corner after Danish public health authorities found new virus variants of COVID-19 originating from mink in a number of infected humans. This new variant could make vaccines less effective, as it may potentially reduce the effect of antibodies. Consequently, the Danish government decided to cull up to 17 million farmed mink and suspended mink farming until 2022. 

The example of Denmark is a warning: spillover of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to mink, and mink to humans is not a new finding and could have severe public health implications.  

It has had a considerable resonance in Brussels. A few days after the mutation was detected, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) highlighted the fact that new strands of coronavirus could potentially undermine the international efforts to combat the virus. An EU Rapid Risk Assessment has been conducted by the ECDC, the European Medicines Agency and the European Food Safety Authority. Moreover, EU agriculture ministers agreed that this is a European health issue, which needs a harmonized response. During the Agri Council meeting in November, the German Minister of Agriculture and former president of the Council, Julia Klöckner, questioned whether mink keeping still has a future at all.

“Allowing the continuation of mink farming by putting niche economic interests over public health should not be an option.” 

“The Commission is expected to draft a working paper on the issue of COVID-19 and mink production,” said Pierre Sultana, director of the FOUR PAWS European Policy Office. “We hope the Commission will adopt a precautionary approach and recognize that the issue can have severe consequences on human health. Allowing the continuation of mink farming by putting niche economic interests over public health should not be an option .”

The Commission issued an implementing decision on December 21 2020 on protective measures in relation to reporting SARS-CoV-2 infection in mink and other Mustelidae and raccoon dogs. The Commission asks member states to monitor and report susceptible animals for SARS-CoV-2 infection, including mink and raccoon dogs, and acknowledges the need to take urgent, harmonized action on this issue. However, it falls short of addressing effectively the serious public health risks linked to mink farming. 

Urgent and proportionate action is needed

In an open letter to the Commission published on December 15 2020, 47 Eurogroup for Animals and Fur Free Alliance member organizations from all EU member countries called for an end to fur farming. We cannot afford the risk that the production of fur impedes efforts to eradicate this disease by preserving a reservoir for SARS-CoV-2 or undermining the efficacy of future vaccines. 

To tackle the issue effectively, the EU must adopt emergency and proportionate measures by suspending all mink farming, including breeding — and all in-country and cross-border transportation of live mink and their raw pelts, both inside and outside the European Union. As part of such a measure, the EU should play a key role in making ‘One Health’ a reality — a concept that acknowledges how tightly interknit human, animal and environmental health are —  and further promote the comprehensive “One Welfare” approach.

“It is more urgent than ever, in times where new mutations of this deadly virus are starting to emerge in animals and humans.”

Joh Vinding, chair of the Fur Free Alliance

First, the EU must prevent the establishment of SARS-CoV-2 reservoirs. From a public health perspective, the continued presence of mink farms in Europe would serve to maintain coronavirus reservoir within human communities. Despite enhanced biosecurity, early warning surveillance and immediate culling of animals in infected farms, experience in Denmark and the Netherlands has shown that it has been impossible to stop the transmission of the virus. 

Second, the EU must avert the spread of an emerging virus in a new host which may lead to an accumulation of mutations and resistance to developed vaccines. Given the devastating impacts caused by the global coronavirus pandemic, we cannot afford to take this risk.

The upcoming meeting of the EU Agricultural Ministers on January 25 will offer the perfect opportunity to discuss COVID-19 and mink farming.

“We ask the Ministers of Agriculture of all EU Member States to call on the Commission to take effective action to suspend the breeding of mink in fur farming across the EU,” said Reineke Hameleers, CEO of Eurogroup for Animals.

“It is more urgent than ever, in times where new mutations of this deadly virus are starting to emerge in animals and humans,” said Joh Vinding, chair of the Fur Free Alliance.

Fur farms cause massive animal suffering and now we know that they also pose an enormous health risk for humans. A large majority of EU citizens reject fur farms and support a ban of this outdated industry which is already illegal in a growing number of member countries. 

According to the United Nations, the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 outbreak will cost at least $8.5 trillion to the world economy over the next two years and the EU needs to provide financial assistance of up to €100 billion to avoid a major economic crisis. There is hope in 2021 thanks to vaccination programs, but the battle is not over. COVID-19 in mink farms is a pressing issue: there is no better time to end fur farming.

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