The Danish government lacked legal justification and made “grossly misleading” statements when it ordered a mass mink extermination two years ago, according to an official inquiry into Europe’s first compulsory farm sector shutdown, which has cost taxpayers billions in compensation to farmers.
In November 2020, Denmark, the world’s largest mink producer, announced it would kill its entire farmed mink population of 15 million animals, because of fears that a Covid-19 mutation moving from mink to humans could jeopardise future vaccines.
The extermination plan was fraught with problems, including reports of mink rising from mass graves, pollution risks from buried carcasses and fears that escaped mink might infect those in the wild and create a permanent virus reservoir from which new variants might infect humans.
The Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, also admitted she had been informed only after the cull started that it was illegal.
Although there had been reported outbreaks of Covid in farmed mink in Europe and North America, Denmark was the only country to order a wholesale cull and shutdown of its industry.
Denmark’s State Serum Institute (SSI) said earlier this year that the mutated virus that sparked the mink extermination, known as Cluster 5, was now considered extinct. The SSI had warned in November 2020 that in the “worst case scenario, Cluster 5 could cause a second pandemic and Denmark could become the new Wuhan. In addition, vaccines under development might not be effective.”
Danish mink farmer Martin Merrild said: “They [the Danish government] panicked. It was a huge shock, as we lost our whole businesses from one day to the next.
“It was close to the skinning season, so we could have reduced the population and just kept a small breeding population for the following year, which could then have been vaccinated. But they ignored the normal processes of consulting with industry that we have in Denmark,” he said.
The ban on mink farming in Denmark remains in place, with a decision on whether to allow mink breeding to restart due next year.
Britta Riis, CEO of Animal Protection Denmark, said despite the inquiry’s findings, a ban was the right decision. She described mink farming as “cruelty to animals, a risk to public health and harmful to the environment”. Given that the Danish taxpayer “has already paid billions … to shut down the industry”, she said the public should “reap the benefits of the ban becoming permanent”.
According to the latest government figures, only 15 mink farmers opted to take a compensation package that would allow them to continue fur farming if the ban lifts.
Government compensation for the Danish mink sector is expected to cost between £1.8bn and £2.2bn. “I don’t think they even knew how big an industry we had in Denmark. They thought it was a small niche and had no idea the decision would cost taxpayers billions,” said Merrild.
The commission’s report found that statements made by the Danish government at a press conference on 4 November 2020, when it announced the cull, were “grossly misleading … given the very far-reaching and intensive nature of the economic and social implications”.
The report added that “it was clear that there was no legal basis” to destroy all of Denmark’s mink.
The commission also criticised the chief of Denmark’s national police for his role in helping to enforce the cull order when he knew it had no legal basis.
Steen Henrik Møller, a senior researcher in the Department of Animal Science at Aarhus University, said the government’s decision was taken “when there was a lot of fear about the Covid pandemic, and it was not clear how the virus was spreading between the mink farms. That was the main worry.”
Møller said he could not see the mink sector returning to Denmark even if the ban is lifted. “The mink feed sector is gone, the equipment sector is gone, the breeding stock is gone. It is possible that the 15 farmers that took the compensation that would allow them to restart farming, start again, but it would be very difficult.”
Mark Oaten, CEO of the International Fur Federation, said the inquiry’s findings highlighted “serious questions over the handling of the situation in Denmark”. The “whole episode,” he said, “has been awful for the farmers and their animals and nothing will ever be able to put that right.”
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