When Denmark ordered the culling of its entire population of mink in late 2020 over fears that a mutated version of the coronavirus that had infected mink could diminish the effectiveness of vaccines, millions of animals were killed and farmers were left reeling by a financial burden that Danish taxpayers ultimately will shoulder.
On Friday, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark apologized to the country’s mink farmers after a damning report released this week blamed top officials for mishandling the cull and said that she had misled the public — the latest twist in a fiasco that has undermined the government’s popularity.
“I know you lost your life’s work, and I am truly sorry for the frustration and grief it has caused,” Frederiksen said, adding that the government would be taking seriously criticism of its handling of the situation.
But she maintained that the decision to cull the mink was “necessary” and rebutted calls for a legal investigation. “We had a responsibility for the health of the entire world,” she said, adding that officials had not misled the public over the issue.
The decision to cull the mink was made when the coronavirus was found to have leapt to humans from the animals in some cases. Worried that a mutated version of the virus transmitted among mink could make coronavirus vaccines less effective for people, the government ordered the culling of some 17 million animals, a significant blow to a country that was until then the world’s top producer of mink pelts, commonly used for luxury coats.
Outbreaks in mink populations, and the subsequent slaughtering of the animals, had emerged in other countries, but the scale of the killing was far higher in Denmark. Danish military was called in to help about 1,100 mink farmers slaughter their animals. Making matters worse, many of the animals were not buried properly and had to be exhumed from mass graves and incinerated.
The cull, which resulted in the loss of 5,000 jobs and effectively halted the industry at the time, was met with a public backlash, forcing the resignation of one minister. Some right-wing lawmakers accused Frederiksen of using the pandemic to end mink farming in the country and called for her resignation.
A 1,649-page report, published Thursday by a parliamentary commission that investigated what has been dubbed “minkgate” in Denmark for more than a year, called the cull order illegal and accused several government officials of acting “reprehensibly,” including some in Frederiksen’s office who it said could be held legally liable for misconduct.
The report found that Frederiksen was “grossly misleading” and breached “truth and legality” when she announced in November 2020 that all mink, infected or not, should be culled. But the commission said it was unable to assess whether Frederiksen had committed “gross negligence” because she has said she was unaware that she had overstepped her authority.
Frederiksen testified last year in front of the commission that she became aware of the fact that the government did not have the legal powers to kill noninfected animals only days after she announced the decision to cull the mink.
It was not immediately clear what the political consequences of the report would be. Frederiksen said she did not intend to resign and rejected calls for a legal investigation, saying that the government had been transparent about the issue.
“The government has at no time tried to hide or cover up this mistake,” she said. “On the contrary, we have put it all out there.”
A decision of how to proceed on the issue will be left up to Parliament, she said.
Some supporters of Frederiksen’s center-left government in Parliament said they would not call for a legal investigation. Many of her conservative opponents want an investigation, and they have been scathing about the government’s handling of the affair.
“It’s a big show with five ministers trying to save themselves,” said Soren Pape Poulsen, a leader of the Conservative People’s Party, according to the Danish broadcaster DR.
If Danish lawmakers proceed with a legal investigation, Frederiksen could face impeachment.
Lawmakers last year approved a move that allowed mink farmers in Denmark’s already troubled industry to seek up to $3 billion in compensation. As of last month, 1,245 mink companies have applied for compensation after shutting down their businesses, according to government figures. Only 15 have applied for a financial package that would help them continue farming mink after the lifting of the farming ban.