The cartoon characters are popping up on fruit and vegetable packaging 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 business.
The entertainment giant is licensing characters to Indianapolis-based produce distributor Imagination Farms LLC, which has deals with 15 large growers 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 Dolman, head of food products licensing for Disney.
Neither Disney nor Imagination Farms would discuss terms of the deal.
Imagination Farms, which started shipping the produce in May, now has 30 different Disney Garden items in 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 organic selections–are due sometime this month.
"The only way for us to grow our markets is to increase the consumption of fresh fruit among kids," said Craig Ito, who has a 5,000-acre fruit farm in Reedley, Calif.
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.
Among the 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 Warner Bros.
The marketing move comes as health professionals issue increasingly dire warnings about the consequences of unhealthy 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.
Licensing arrangements between growers and cartoon-makers are not new, but were rare because licensing fees were expensive.
Today, however, entertainment companies are likely offering the characters at more attractive prices as a way to polish their image among parents and young people.
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune