Leading kids' entertainment brand Nickelodeon is to team up with a number of US food firms to roll out new children-friendly fruit and vegetable products featuring some of its popular cartoon characters.
The initiative, which will bring new products to the shelves this fall, is being criticized by some as a maneuver to appear responsible as the firm comes under fire for marketing junk food to kids.
But Nickelodeon claims the move is part of its commitment to encourage children to eat well, by providing them and their parents with options.
The new partnership brings cartoon celebrities including Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants to fresh apples, pears and cherries from Borton & Sons, organic shelled soybeans and frozen organic soybean pods from Seapoint Farms and carrot and apple dips from Reichel Foods.
The two characters currently bring in around $1bn each per year in sales of branded goods, according to Nickelodeon.
Nickelodeon said its new agreements are based on the success of previous initiatives, which saw the same characters appearing on spinach, baby carrots and clementines last year.
According to LGS Specialty Sales, which supplied the clementine products, Dora and SpongeBob were an "instant hit", increasing grocery store sales of the products by almost 30 percent. And Grimmway Farms, which sold SpongeBob baby carrots, said the item enjoyed double digit sales increases in some regional retailers.
Nickelodeon, which has so far primarily associated its characters with products such as cereal, ice cream and candy, said it plans to continue promoting healthy food products.
"We broke new ground in the world of licensing and we'll continue to look for opportunities to use our stable of loved characters to encourage healthy food choices," said Sherice Torres, vice president of Nickelodeon and Viacom consumer products.
And it seems that competing firms also have the same idea. Last month, one of the UK's major grocery retailers, Tesco, obtained licensing rights to use Disney characters including Winnie the Pooh and Tigger on branded fruit products, such as apples and bananas.
And Del Monte Foods has also announced a deal with the Sesame Workshop, which will bring Elmo, Grover and Cookie Monster onto packs of green beans, sweet peas and corn, starting in September.
Bugs Bunny, Tweety and the Tasmanian Devil are also in for a piece of the pie, after Ready Pac teamed up with Warner to launch Cool Cuts Ready Snax single-serve packs of apples, grapes and carrots featuring the characters.
But certain critics are viewing the new move by Nickelodeon with suspicion.
Earlier this year, media conglomerate Viacom- Nickelodeon's parent company- was threatened with a lawsuit by parents and consumer groups for marketing junk food to children.
Together with cereal company Kellogg, the entertainment firm was accused of "directly harming kids' health" by pressure groups Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood.
At the time, the CSPI had claimed that the "overwhelming majority of food products they market to children are high in sugar, saturated fat, or salt, or almost devoid of nutrients."
CSPI now says that Nickelodeon's new partnerships are good news, but is not so positive about the motives behind the move.
"The company is worried about being blamed for rising obesity rates and it's seeking out ways to look good," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan.
"I don't know that the reason behind the move is to promote children's health. But that doesn't matter. The net result is that they are promoting fruits and vegetables to kids, and that's good for kids. Any efforts to get children to ask their parents for fruits and vegetables is welcome," she told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
But Nickelodeon says its latest partnerships are not a reaction to accusations of irresponsible marketing.
"We believe that what is good for kids is good for business. Because the rising obesity issue is important in kids' lives, we chose to opt in, and be a part of the solution," Torres told FoodNavigator-USA.com, adding that Nickelodeon first contacted food manufacturers in 2001 to encourage new licensing partnerships with fruits and vegetabels.
"It was an uphill battle making some of these deals a reality but we believe this is progress and a move in the right direction to provide an overall balance for kids," she added.
The company was unable to comment on the lawsuit that may well still be brought against it.
According to the CSPI, it entered into negotiations with Kellogg after it had filed its notice of intent, which may result in a settlement with the cereal giant. However, Nickelodeon refused to enter negotiations, said the CSPI, which means that the advocacy group will most likely go ahead and file suit against Viacom once its negotiations with Kellogg have been concluded.