Mink Farmers Rely on Senate as Bulwark Against Ban in China Bill

  • Concerns over cruelty, Covid risk driving bid to stop practice
  • China emerges as market for pelts as US retailers shun fur

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US mink farmers are banking on Senate negotiators to protect their businesses from extinction as lawmakers work out the final version of legislation aimed at boosting innovation and competitiveness with China.

America’s roughly 100 mink farms, faced with shrinking US sales as retailers shy away from selling furs on ethical grounds, have turned to China as a market for their pelts. The House version of the China legislation (H.R. 4521) would ban US mink farming, a goal activists have long sought that gained currency amid concerns that mink in captivity spread Covid-19.

“The evidence is clear: mink operations can incubate and spread new COVID-19 variants and pose a unique threat of extending the pandemic,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), sponsor of the mink-ban amendment in the House bill, said in a statement. “At the same time, with virtually no domestic market, the U.S. mink industry has been in steady decline for years.”

Cathrine Ertmann/Bloomberg
Minks share a cage in Gjol, Denmark, on Nov. 6, 2020, a week after authorities said a coronavirus variant justified culling all 17 million of the animals farmed in the country.

Senators, led by Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), are pushing back against the ban, saying it would target American jobs and businesses.

“This is truly one of the more inappropriate additions the House made to this bill,” Johnson said on the Senate floor. “In Wisconsin, it supports hundreds of jobs and produces exports to China.”

US mink exports to Asian countries are valued at around $45 million a year, according to the trade group Fur Commission USA.

A non-binding motion to instruct conferees to oppose the provision got 59 votes from members of both parties last month, with just 33 senators voting against it and in favor of keeping the ban in the bill.

BGOV OnPoint: China Competition Bill Heads to Conference

‘Stressed’ in Captivity

Activists against mink farming say it’s unethical to keep the territorial and antisocial animals in captivity—only to kill them later for their fur.

“Americans have stopped buying fur because keeping these semiaquatic animals in cages and breaking their necks to kill them for fur is inhumane,” Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a leading Senate opponent of mink farming, said, urging his colleagues to support the ban.

“The mink are so stressed having these other mink around that they lash out and attack each other routinely,” Wayne Pacelle, founder of the advocacy group Animal Wellness Action, said in a phone interview.

“We’ve been winning this fight in the marketplace,” Pacelle said. “Almost all the major fashion designers and most of the clothing retailers—everybody from Coach and Armani and Neiman Marcus at the high end to Macy’s and Nordstrom, in the middle to upper-middle domain—they’ve all stopped selling.”

Macy’s Inc. decided to phase out natural fur after customers migrated away from the trend, a company spokesperson said.

That’s left the bulk of US mink pelts being exported to China and other countries such as Russia, which is currently under Ukraine-war related sanctions.

‘Perfect Storm for Covid’

Scientists’ findings that Covid-19 spreads among mink spurred authorities elsewhere to cull the animals. The Danish government killed millions of mink in November 2020, including healthy animals, as a public health measure.

The close quarters on mink farms mean Covid can spread rapidly among the animals already susceptible to coronavirus, said Jim Keen, a researcher at the Center for a Humane Economy.

“It makes it kind of a perfect storm for Covid,” Keen said.

The fur industry counters that vaccinating mink helps keep them from becoming a public health concern. Challis Hobbs, executive director of Fur Commission USA, said he was heartened by Johnson’s motion to instruct in the Senate.

“How that came to pass was a lot of just grassroots outreach—farmers reaching out to their congressmen,” Hobbs said. He said he doesn’t expect the mink farming ban to make its way into the final China competition bill.

Booker acknowledged the uphill battle he and other mink-farming foes face. “We’ve been trying,” he said this week. The fight to include the ban in the China bill is “frustrating, obviously, to me.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she hopes both chambers can get the final version of the legislation passed in the next month.

With assistance from Mia McCarthy

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeve Sheehey in Washington at msheehey@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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