The future of an estimated 100 U.S. mink farms may be decided by House and Senate negotiators resolving differences in a massive research and technology package designed to make the nation more competitive with China.
The House competition bill would ban the possession, purchase, receipt, sale or transport of farm-raised mink in domestic and international markets. Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the provision, which would take effect Dec. 31 and includes no mention of compensation.
The Senate last week agreed to Sen. Ron Johnson's motion to instruct conferees to block DeLauro's provision from the final bill. Johnson, R-Wis., represents the nation's top mink-producing state. His motion received the support of 10 Democrats, including Agriculture Appropriations Chair Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin; Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith of Minnesota, another significant mink-farming state; and Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Maine independent Angus King also supported it.
"This is truly one of the more inappropriate additions that the House made to this bill," Johnson said.
Mink farming doesn't rank among the high-tech issues that dominate lawmakers' effort to make the U.S. more competitive, but China accounts for 80 percent of the industry's sales, according to Challis Hobbs, executive director of Fur Commission USA. Russia, Ukraine and the rest of Europe, and Canada account for the rest, he said, adding that Russia's invasion of Ukraine added more uncertainty to a market that saw prices rise in 2020 and 2021.
"What's next? Is it poultry? It sets a precedent to destroy other animal farming," Hobbs said. He estimated about 100 farms still operate in his small industry, down from the 275 cited on a group website that he said needs updating. The shrinking number of farms represents a broader trend in agriculture of farmers retiring and remaining operations getting larger.
Supporters of the ban, who put the number of farms closer to 60, say the goal is to shut down a potential animal source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 in humans.
Despite what the industry says is a 95 percent mink inoculation rate with an emergency vaccine developed during the pandemic, critics argue the farms pose a risk because the animals are kept caged and in close quarters. They note outbreaks of the virus in 2020 on farms involving animals possibly transmitting the disease to farmers or farmworkers.
But Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., was explicit about a second motive when he opposed Johnson's motion last week. “Americans have stopped buying fur because keeping these semiaquatic wild animals in cages and breaking their necks to kill them for fur is inhumane,” Booker said.
Groups such as the Animal Wellness Action, Animal Wellness Foundation, Center for a Humane Economy, Michelson Center for Public Policy and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International backed DeLauro's amendment as well as a DeLauro bill with bipartisan co-sponsors that called for shutting down mink farms.
COVID-19 seen as pretext
Critics of the ban say animal rights and welfare advocates are using a public health emergency to shut down an animal industry they dislike.
“Singling out animal agriculture for this type of draconian treatment is unprecedented, and we believe, unacceptable,” nine farm bureau state chapters and the Fur Commission USA wrote in an April 14 letter to Stabenow and Senate Agriculture ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark.
The American Farm Bureau Federation and farm-state lawmakers sent separate letters of opposition to congressional leaders and House and Senate committees in April.
"We have a lot of allies," said Hobbs, attributing the support to concern about the mere possibility that lawmakers may go after bigger commercial animal operations. He also said commercial mink farmers don't wring animals' necks but use gas to put them to sleep. The farms are inspected by a third-party certification company to see that they comply with the standards, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that as of April 27, the risk of transmission from animals to humans is low and usually due to close contact. The CDC called the reported cases of infected mink, hamsters and deer spreading the disease rare occurrences.
The Netherlands and France moved in 2020 to end mink farming after cases of apparent transmission to farmers and workers of the virus that causes COVID-19. The Netherlands planned to pay farmers for losses, while France set a 2025 deadline for the end of mink farming. Other countries concerned about the presence of the virus at farms ordered the destruction of minks to prevent transmission, with Denmark culling an estimated 17 million of the animals.
The World Organisation for Animal Health said in March there have been 669 reported outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 in 20 species of animals, including cats and dogs, in 35 countries. At the time of the report, there were 500 million reported human cases of COVID-19 or its variants.
The report said some countries had a high prevalence of outbreaks on mink farms with variants of the virus in a mammal family that includes minks, badgers, weasels, otters, ferrets and wolverines. Hobbs noted that farmers have been compensated for losses in countries that have banned or are phasing out mink farming.
Hobbs said mink farms are still family-run operations but the market they sell their pelts to is an international one where animal fur remains popular. The farms sell their pelts in international auctions that require producers to meet standards for nutrition, housing, biosecurity, veterinary care and how the minks are killed.
Hobbs said he and others in agriculture will monitor the House-Senate conference committee as negotiators work to deliver a compromise bill.
“I think it is all hands on deck,” he said.