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Meet SureBeam Corporation, a relatively new name in the field of food irradiation technology, but still a seasoned and capable player. The firm was created in August 2000 when Titan Corporation, San Diego, separated its medical sterilization business from the newly formed food safety enterprise. "SureBeam was born for the sole purpose of penetrating the enormous global food market," says Larry Oberkfell, SureBeam's chairman, president and CEO. SureBeam is touted as a leading provider of patented electron beam and X-ray food safety systems and services for the food industry.

Under Oberkfell's leadership, SureBeam established its strategic direction and completed its Initial Public Offering (IPO) on March 16, 2001. On Aug. 5, 2002, Titan awarded its shareholders a tax-free dividend of its remaining SureBeam ownership. SureBeam is now 100 percent publicly traded on the Nasdaq under the symbol SURE.

During the early 1980s, Titan worked to develop electron beam technology as part of its government research. Ten years later, Titan commercialized the technology by applying it to medical products sterilization.

According to Dan Henroid, director of Iowa State University's Food Safety Project, about 18 companies worldwide are known to be working with food irradiation processing or equipment manufacturing. Of those, SureBeam believes itself to be the only one offering turnkey electronic food irradiation systems.

"We compete against several companies seeking to address the food safety market, including firms offering gamma ray Cobalt 60 technology and alternatives to irradiation, such as thermal sterilization, fumigation and chemi-cal washes," Oberkfell says. "However, we are the only company dedicated exclusively to electron beam and X-ray system solutions in the U.S., and soon to be in South America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia."

Unique Distinctions

Unquestionably, SureBeam built the nation's first electron beam facility dedicated to meat, poultry and other food products (in Sioux City, Iowa). The first electronically irradiated beef product sold commercially, marketed by Huisken Meat Company, Sauk Rapids, Minn., was processed with SureBeam technology. SureBeam also built the nation's first commercial X-ray facility in Hilo, Hawaii, for the disinfestation of exotic fruits.

Beginning in late summer of 2002, SureBeam's momentum began to accelerate in the U.S. marketplace with an increasing number of rollouts of ground beef products in several key retail markets.

"This was driven in part by the growing consumer demand for food safety due to the heightened awareness since Sept. 11, as well as the USDA's own admission last September that E. coli 0157:H7 is now believed to be more prevalent than originally thought," Oberkfell says.

Currently, SureBeam irradiated fresh ground beef is sold in at least 1,400 stores primarily in the Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Additionally, SureBeam processed frozen hamburger patties are sold in more than 3,000 supermarkets nationwide, as well as via home delivery, direct mail, food service, and through restaurant chains.

SureBeam has contracts with most of the nation's largest meat suppliers, plus other commodity suppliers, such as Iowa Beef Processors and Cargill. All of this is done with three food irradiation centers in the United States.

According to Oberkfell, SureBeam's worldwide market is about 1.8 trillion pounds within five major target categories: ground beef, poultry, processed meats, seafood, and fruit and vegetables. The U.S. market for those categories is roughly 146 billion pounds.

New Patent

On Nov. 25, 2002, SureBeam announced the award of a new U.S. patent that increases the processing efficiency of the electron beam technology and provides the ability to simultaneously process products in a variety of package configurations.

"This patent further strengthens SureBeam's position as a leader in electron beam and X-ray technology," says Oberkfell. "This is particularly important since processing plants produce many different products and packages in the same production runs."

For its "great step" into food safety, SureBeam's technology is the winner of Food Processing Magazine's "Innovation Award" for 2001. SureBeam is also ranked by Deloitte and Touche as the 37th fastest-growing technology company in the Orange County/San Diego region for 2002.

Oberkfell is enthusiastic about the future. "We're a new company introducing a new technology into the food market," he says. "We have made progress in the early stages of our growth, including gaining consumer and retailer acceptance as well as building our brand awareness. There is enormous potential before us, and we will measure our success over time.

"On the day of SureBeam's IPO, one newspaper editorial referred to our company as 'the baby put out in the snowstorm'," Oberkfell says. "We have great customer partners and a growing support network for our technology, so we feel this infant has great prospects to grow up into a healthy adult."

Freelance journalist Linda L. Leake follows technology developments from her home base in Wilmington, N.C.

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