When it comes to animal care, farmers should do what consumers want, but within reason, a leading expert in animal welfare told producers at the 92nd annual meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

"We don’t always know what consumers want, but research shows that they are concerned about how animals are treated," said Janice Swanson, an animal welfare specialist at Michigan State University.

Surveys by the Center for Food Integrity have found consumers believe animals raised for food have emotions and can feel pain, Swanson said.

And when they consider agriculture, "consumers evaluate the animal production system according to their ethics, not yours," she emphasized.

One of the best ways farmers can help build the public’s trust in the way they care for animals is through industry standards or guidelines. For example, the National Pork Producers created the Pork Quality Assurance program, which requires producers to undergo training on how to care for their animals using scientifically sound practices.

"Creating industry standards for animal care is a major step in understanding your industry; what you do, how you do it, why you do it and why you should do it," Swanson said.

She advised farmers to think about the most "vexing issues" they have to deal with in their industry and then determine the true cost or benefit of implementing changes to address those issues. She also encouraged farmers to think about the long-term impact of not making any changes.

"Do what consumers want within reason. Continue to create and control your reality through standards and guidelines."