LOS ANGELES (AFX) - Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob and the Tasmanian Devil are coming to a produce aisle near you.
The cartoon characters are popping up on fruit and vegetable packaging across the country as growers strike licensing deals with entertainment companies hungry to cultivate positive images among health-conscious parents and kids.
Walt Disney Co., with its overwhelming cartoon capital and cultural clout, is the most significant entry in the produce business.
The entertainment giant is licensing characters to Indianapolis-based produce distributor Imagination Farms LLC, which has deals with 15 large growers across the country to provide fruits and vegetables for the Disney Garden brand.
'We're doing it predominantly because it is the right thing to do, but secondarily because it is the right business to be in,' said Harry Dollman, head of food products licensing for Disney.
'Concerns about the right nutrition for kids is not a fad; it's not something that will be overtaken by another trend,' he said.
Neither Disney nor Imagination Farms would discuss terms of the deal.
Imagination Farms started shipping the produce in May and currently has more than 30 different Disney Garden items in Albertsons and other supermarket chains, said Matthew Caito, who heads the distributor.
Caito plans to have 100 different produce items on supermarket shelves by January and another 100 by the end of 2007.
'We want to be able to supply an entire produce department with Disney Garden products,' he said.
Already available are peaches with Daisy Duck and Goofy stickers, and table grapes packaged in Mickey and Minnie Mouse boxes. Organic apples with Winnie the Pooh -- the mascot for Disney Garden organic selections -- are due out sometime in September.
Craig Ito, who has a 5,000-acre fruit farm in Reedley, Calif., was eager to participate when Imagination Farms approached him. He saw it as a way to lure young customers away from the fast food diets served up by time-strapped parents.
'The only way for us to grow our markets is to increase the consumption of fresh fruit among kids,' Ito said.
The kids seem to be biting.
Ito said sales of peaches, plums and nectarines bearing images of Disney characters have exceeded the amount of unbranded fruit he sold last year for about the same price.
He credits the cartoon characters.
'In the cereal section, you see all kinds of characters,' he said. 'In the produce area, it's kind of humdrum.'
Denise Hanisee, 60, said her 9-year-old granddaughter gets the most excited in aisles with hot chocolate and candy. She believes that enthusiasm could carry over to Disney-branded fruit because she loves Mickey Mouse and his cartoon companions.
'That might entice her,' Hanisee said.
Among the other arrivals to the produce aisle are Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants spinach and Dora the Explorer oranges. There are also Tweety Bird grapes and Tasmanian Devil apples, the result of a deal between Ready Pac Produce Inc. and Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros.
The marketing move comes as health professionals issue increasingly dire warnings about the consequences of unhealthy young diets.
In 2004, 18.8 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were overweight, up from just 7 percent 20 years earlier, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A number of entertainment companies have come under fire for maintaining marketing deals with fast food chains and junk food makers.
'As long as cartoon characters are used to sell junk food directly to kids, then the entertainment industry is partially culpable for the childhood obesity epidemic,' said Harvard Medical School psychiatry instructor Susan Linn, who criticizes marketing aimed at children in her book 'Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood.'
A study last year by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies of Sciences recommended that mascots appealing to children be used only to promote healthy foods.
'If these spokes-characters are being used to promote sweetened cereals or Coca-Cola or juices that are contributing to obesity or poor childhood health, then it does become an issue,' said Vivica Kraak, a researcher who contributed to the study.
Licensing arrangements between growers and cartoon makers are not new. Bugs Bunny has appeared on packaging for carrots, and Popeye has plugged spinach.
But such tie-ins have been rare, mostly because low profit margins in the produce industry have left little money to spend on expensive licensing deals, said Jim Prevor, who edits Produce Business magazine and maintains a Web log as The Perishable Pundit.
These days, however, Hollywood sees such links as more than just a source of revenue. Entertainment companies are likely providing the characters to growers at affordable prices as a way to polish their image among parents and young people, Prevor said.
'The amount of money from the licensing fee is insignificant,' Prevor said. 'Part of it is to be able to go to parents and to say 'We're here to help you.''
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