Back in October 2006, the Michigan Department of Agriculture launched a “sting” operation against farmer Richard Hebron, seizing thousands of dollars worth of raw dairy products destined for delivery to members of a herdshare in Ann Arbor.

That well planned police action was prompted by several cases of food-borne illness among members of an Ann Arbor family the previous Easter-cases that turned out were likely caused by pasteurized milk.

The case against Richard Hebron took six months to unravel, with a county prosecutor finally deciding not to file charges against the farmer, and instead pushing for a settlement between Hebron and the MDA whereby the herdshare arrangement was allowed and he paid a $1,000 fine and agreed to abide by some structural changes on his farm requested by the agency.

What was still left hanging after the settlement, though, was the exact status of herdshares in Michigan. Since Michigan bans the sale of unpasteurized milk to consumers, herdshares are the only legitimate means for consumers to obtain raw milk.

Rather than continue down a path of uncertainty and confrontation, though, like any number of other states, Michigan has chosen a much different approach. Encouraged by members of the herdshare in Ann Arbor, Michigan established a working group of representatives from the government, academic, dairy, and raw milk communities to consider ways of fostering education and milk availability. The group has been quietly meeting on a monthly basis for about a year-and-a-half, and has finally gone public, via a website, with its progress thus far.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup is the series of questions it has posed for itself to answer over the next twelve to eighteen months. These questions are separated into ten areas, and thus far, the group has answered just one-the one about the history of raw milk.

Still to come are thorny matters of benefits, risks, liability, and consumer choice–for example, “What are the risks for fresh unprocessed whole milk, including all types of risks, such as adverse consequences, intolerance and allergens?” That could occupy ten or fifteen minutes of discussion, I suppose.

I asked Katherine Fedder, the head of the MDA’s dairy division, about the group, and while she obviously didn’t want to stake out any positions on the questions to be considered, she expressed satisfaction with the process as it has unfolded thus far. “I have certainly learned a lot sitting at the table. Everybody has been respectful and open minded. We listen, we question, we debate.”

It sounds like it has the makings of a positive process. Certainly it could degeneate into something much less, once the group begins assessing the real questions, and people are called on to take positions at odds with existing government and academic thinking. In the meantime, the Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup has the distinction of being the most positive effort in the entire country to confront the divisiveness raw milk has provoked, and that’s saying a lot.