Jamie Oliver and his farmer pal Jimmy Doherty conducted a fowl experiment last week – on their TV show Friday Night Feast. They took over a Southend chicken shop and served the regulars their favourite fried chicken but with a twist – it was free-range. The response was super-positive and the admittedly small sample said they’d be more than happy to pay a wee bit more for this high welfare option.

Too simplistic to say every restaurant should respond to this test by switching to free-range? For sure. But it does re-raise an interesting issue that just won’t go away. And, perhaps more interestingly, Jamie and Jimmy tried out another finger lickin’ food trial on the good folk of Southend.

As everyone who takes even the slightest interest in chicken production and sourcing knows, free range meat is in short supply and the vast majority finds its way onto supermarket shelves. According to the British Poultry Council, free range accounts for just 5% of total UK chicken production

What comes first? The demand or the supply? There is an appetite for high welfare chicken as Jamie and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall proved back in 2008 when their Chicken Out campaign sparked a 35% increase in free-range poultry sales. It didn’t sustain. But what if there was a much large source of affordable free-range chicken.

With more than half of eggs sold in the UK now being free-range – the highest rate in Europe, could this be the source of the solution? Well the two Js found an East Anglian egg farmer more than happy to send his ‘spent hens’, as they are known, to be guinea pigs – so to speak.

Again, the good folk of Southend were left licking their lips and fingers. Jamie made it clear that these older and leaner birds need their own special handling and come with a flavour of their own. But might he have cracked the free-range supply/price problem in one fell swoop?

With the threat of bird flu still hovering over the UK, there’s a distinct possibility that free-range will lose its status if the restrictions which have kept birds indoors since the end of November, continue until the end of this month. Farming Unions are calling for an extension to the 12-week ‘indoor housing’ rule that would mean they’d have to call eggs and meat ‘barn reared’ instead.

The British Egg Industry Council’s CEO Mark Williams, said: “If the chief veterinary officer advises that free range hens need to continue to be housed for a further period (possibly one or two months) the industry is planning to put stickers on free range egg packs explaining that the birds are currently housed, accompanied by point-of-sale material in supermarkets and a website for further information, to ensure full transparency.”

Would you consider spent hen for your menus? Do let us know and we’ll keep you posted on our discussions with the industry.