Animal rights groups are urging Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to examine mink farming’s risks to public health.
Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy have responded to recent reports that Minnesota’s DNR is launching a study on links between mink farms and zoonotic disease outbreaks across the U.S. and Europe. “[O]vercrowded, highly stressed mink kept on factory farms are a potential super spreader of avian influenza, Covid-19, and other dangerous zoonotic diseases,” they said.
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Jim Keen, D.V.M. Ph.D., a Center for a Humane Economy director of veterinary science and a former USDA infectious disease specialist, said farmed mink are “highly susceptible” and “readily transmit” influenza A strain diseases found in birds, people and mammals like pigs.
“This includes the zoonotic bird flu H5N1 mink mutant strain that infected and caused the deaths of more than 200,000 farmed mink on six farms in Spain and Finland in 2022 and 2023,” he said. The bird flu strain killed 458 people out of 873 human cases, with a 53 percent fatality rate that is “much higher than any known influenza virus, including the infamous 1918 H1N1 pandemic strain.” Alongside Tom Pool, D.V.M., MPH, Keen authored a 2022 study on the connection between mink farming and Covid-19 spread.
In their natural state, mink are solitary creatures that roam long distances and even take to water. They are unaccustomed to living in cramped, close quarters like cages and crates, and are apt to spread pathogens amongst each other. Contact with humans, like farmers, exacerbates the risk of interspecies viral spread. Finland recently culled tens of thousands of mink infected with the H5N1 virus. Other European countries, including the Netherlands, Sweden, France and Poland, have voted to end mink farming.
In 2020, Danish officials mulled passing legislation that would mandate the killing of 17 million farmed mink due to fears that a mutated form of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, would be passed to humans. Eventually, Denmark‘s government dropped the bill, but advised farmers to cull their mink populations. The animals’ carcasses were later exhumed, as it was suspected that they were causing groundwater contamination that could sicken humans.
The U.S. market for mink pelts has been in decline for several decades, with most pelts produced stateside going to China and Russia. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent assessment of pelt production revealed a 15-percent decrease to 1.33 million pieces between 2021 and 2022—the biggest drop the agency has recorded. Last year, House legislators Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) introduced a bill that would ban mink farming due to the risk of zoonotic and human disease spread. While the legislation was dropped after passing in the House, it is likely to be picked up again during the next session. Oregon state lawmakers also introduced a law that aimed to outlaw mink farming in 2021.
“Farmed mink are the only non-human species documented to have spilled over Covid-19 variants to humans, but even more ominously, mink are now spreading H5N1 in Europe, with very dangerous spillover potential to humans,” Animal Wellness Action and Center for a Humane Economy president Wayne Pacelle said. “The Minnesota DNR should understand that if we continue to gamble and allow the small, dying mink industry to operate, other variants will almost certainly emerge and threaten human health and the global economy.”
“We know more than enough now to make a determination that the mink farming industry is a high-risk super spreader of zoonotic disease, while contributing almost nothing to our economy,” added Michael Allen, Minnesota state director of Animal Wellness Action. “The Minnesota DNR should bring in public health experts and come to the inescapable conclusion that this industry represents an unacceptable threat in our state.”