Danish health agency says mink farming poses low Covid-19 risk

A resumption of Denmark's banned mink farming poses little risk of Covid virus variants emerging, the country's public health institute said Tuesday in a report that could lead to the industry's revival.

Minks at a Danish fur farm
Minks at a Danish fur farm prior to the shuttering of the industry in late 2020. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Denmark was the world’s leading exporter of mink fur until it decided in November 2020 to cull all its 15-17 million minks, after studies suggested that a variant found in some of the animals could jeopardise the effectiveness of future vaccines.

Prior to the cull, Denmark was also the world’s second-largest producer of mink fur after China.

The Scandinavian country later banned the breeding of the mammals until the end of 2022, in a blow to the industry.

The Danish public health institute SSI said in its report the risk was low that mink farming would lead to the emergence of variants of concern.

“Overall, the probability can be characterised as low, and is assumed to be significantly less than the probability that these will arise in a world population of 7.9 billion people”, it said.

The report is expected to play a part in the government’s decision later this year on whether to extend or end the ban.

According to Danish news agency Ritzau, 1,243 mink farmers have applied for state compensation for shutting down their farms.

Meanwhile only 15 have applied for compensation for dormant farms, suggesting that most mink farmers do not plan to resume even if the ban is lifted.

The Danish cull led to a political fiasco, when it quickly emerged — after the cull was already underway — that the government’s order had no legal basis, leading to the resignation of the agriculture minister, Mogens Jensen.

An agreement was reached retroactively to make the government’s decision legal, and the nationwide cull continued uninterrupted.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen later testified before a special parliamentary commission that she did not know the decision lacked legal basis.

READ ALSO: One percent of mink breeders apply for money to resume business

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What did Danish mink inquiry conclude and what happens next?

An independent commission tasked with investigating government decisions surrounding the 2020 culling of millions of Danish fur farm mink released its final report on Thursday.

What did Danish mink inquiry conclude and what happens next?

The 4,500-page report finds fault with prime minister Mette Frederiksen, who, it says, made “grossly misleading” statements about the legal basis of the mink cull at a November 2020 press conference. 

The commission also said that Frederiksen “did not have knowledge about of the intention of” misleading, meaning she was not aware that the legal basis for the decision was not in place, according to the reports.

In its report, the commission wrote that “severe misleading” had occurred over the mink cullings, called the events “exceptionally criticisable” and that laws had been broken.

READ ALSO: Danish PM ‘grossly misled’ during mink announcement 

The report says 10 officials, largely department heads from the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of the Environment and Food, the National Police, and the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, should be held accountable for failing to demonstrate that there was no legal basis for the decision to cull far farm mink.

Barbara Bertelsen, head of the prime minister’s department, and Mogens Jensen, former minister of food, agriculture, and fisheries, are the subject of particular criticism in the report.

“It is the assessment of the commission that the head of the prime minister’s department Barbara Bertelsen has committed derelictions of duty of such severity that there is a basis for the public to seek to hold her accountable,” the report states.

Bertelsen, as a lawyer, should have questioned the legality of the order to cull the minks, the commission said.

The decision to cull the mink fell under Jensen’s purview and the commission found Jensen was aware the government had no legal authority and lied to parliament about it. Jensen resigned just two weeks after the decision was made. 

“The Commission finds that Mogens Jensen was on November 5th 2020 informed that there was no legal authority to cull all the minks and that [Jensen] thereby… gained knowledge that should have forced him to realise that his – and also the prime minister’s – statements during the press briefing on November 4th were severely misleading,” the report states.

It is not the duty of the commission to make a legal assessment of whether ministers acted intentionally or recklessly.

Potential consequences for Frederiksen could take the form of an official reprimand, known as a næse, or the appointment of a special impeachment court, a rare occurrence in Danish politics but used as recently as last year.

Parliament has the responsibility for final conclusions, meaning that the minority Social Democratic government’s allied parties on the left wing are likely to have a decisive say in whether the matter is taken forward, following the submission of the commission’s report.

At least one of the three left wing parties – the Social Liberals (Radikale Venstre), Red Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) and Socialist People’s Party (SF) would need to decide to pursue Frederiksen by appointing a special impeachment court, should that route be taken. Opposition parties would also need to favour this option.

Two of those parties have already signalled that they do not want to appoint an impeachment court, however.

SF said it saw no reason to proceed with the special court or with independent legal investigations of the matter, arguing Frederiksen had neither committed a crime nor lied to parliament. The Red Green Alliance said that Frederiksen has not deliberately misled the public at the November 4th briefing because she did not know the order was illegal at that time.

Social Liberal political spokesperson Andreas Steenberg said on Thursday that the party was yet to form any conclusions.

Frederiksen said on Friday that the government would review the criticism of the 10 officials, including Bertelsen, before deciding whether to suspend them. The decision will rest on the advice of a governmental staff competency agency, Medarbejder- og Kompetencestyrelsen, Frederiksen said.

“I take and have responsibility for this not having been a drawn out process, because we were under time constraints. That does not change the fact that some fundamental things should be in place — including legal basis,” she said at a briefing.

Denmark was the world’s leading exporter of mink fur until it decided in November 2020 to cull all its 15-17 million minks, after studies suggested that a variant found in some of the animals could jeopardise the effectiveness of future vaccines.

The variant was later considered to have been eradicated before a compensation package worth billions of kroner was agreed for the farmers.

The original order by the government to cull the mink was shown to have been illegal shortly after the initial culling order was given, resulting in one of the biggest scandals in modern Danish politics.