Wisconsin ag officials caution mink farmers after COVID-19 outbreaks in Europe

Wisconsin ag officials caution mink farmers after COVID-19 outbreaks in Europe

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Saga Furs

Claudia Manzanilla evaluates mink pelts for their nap length at the Saga Fur processing facility in Stoughton earlier this year. Wisconsin officials have cautioned mink farmers about the risk of COVID-19 infection among mink. 

Wisconsin animal health officials are warning the state’s mink farmers about the risk of COVID-19 coronavirus infection after reports of outbreaks among animals on multiple European farms.

There have been no documented cases of infection within Wisconsin’s $223 million mink industry, though producers say they are taking precautions to protect their herds and animal rights activists have renewed calls to ban the fur trade.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection earlier this month circulated guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control to veterinarians who work with Wisconsin’s mink ranches, said agency spokesman Kevin Hoffman.

The federal guidelines note that the virus that causes COVID-19 has been detected in mink on multiple farms in the Netherlands and that research has shown ferrets, a close relative of mink, can catch and spread the virus in laboratory settings. The document notes a lack of evidence that animals “play a significant role in spreading the virus to humans,” though it cautions that more study is needed.

The advisory directs producers or vets who suspect that mink are infected to contact the state animal health official, who will work with other officials to determine if testing is needed.

Hoffman said last week that DATCP had not received any reports of suspected mink infections.

Wisconsin, which had 67 mink farms as of the last USDA census, is the nation’s largest mink producer, supplying nearly half of the roughly 3 million U.S. pelts sold in 2018.

DATCP estimates the state’s fur exports that year were worth nearly $227 million.

According to the Reuters news agency, the Dutch government has ordered the killing of more than half a million mink on fur farms in the Netherlands, and the Danish government has ordered another 11,000 mink to be killed after animals at a farm in Denmark were found to be infected.

Seventeen fur farms have been infected so far in the Netherlands, according to Bloomberg News, which reported that an infected worker is thought to have introduced the virus.

The USDA guidelines reference information from Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, which says the virus spread among the mink and that it is “plausible” the animals transmitted it to other workers.

Michael Whelan, executive director of Fur Commission USA, said there have been no reports of infections among domestic mink, but ranchers are following the trade organization’s safety recommendations.

Whelan said the European farms are in densely populated areas that have had heavy rates of human infection.

“Most of these ranchers are in areas where people don’t have it,” he said. “We are taking all the precautions, though. It’s not just business as usual.”

Bob Zimbal, owner of Zimbal Minkery in Sheboygan, said he’s not concerned about the potential for infection and said his operation, the state’s largest, has always had biosecurity procedures in place and is doing temperature checks on employees.

He said orders to destroy mink herds in the Netherlands are a response to pressure from animal rights activists.

“It’s more of a political thing,” Zimbal said.

The Dutch Parliament voted in 2013 to limit expansion of the fur industry and ordered all production to end by 2024. Bloomberg reported the government is considering a program to compensate producers who shut down sooner.

U.S. animal rights activists say the European outbreak indicates confined animal breeding is a public health issue and want to see more controls on the largely unregulated domestic fur industry.

“Mink farms are really kind of breeding grounds for infectious diseases,” said PJ Smith, director of fashion policy for the Humane Society of the United States. “Not only is this industry horribly cruel to animals and bad for the environment but now it’s a risk for the spread of COVID-19.”

Noting there have been dozens of COVID-19 cases in Sheboygan County, Minneapolis-based activist Nick Atwood said state agriculture officials should require mink farmers to report any signs of infection and even institute random testing, which has helped identify animal outbreaks in Europe.

“It’s a public health issue,” Atwood said. “As we’ve seen in meatpacking plants in Wisconsin and across the country, an outbreak at one business can impact the entire community.”

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