Modern information technologies (Internet, EDI)

to improve efficacy and quality of relief foods and services


Dominique Bounie, IAAL / University of Lille - France


Need for information strategies in emergency situations

There is a growing consciousness about the major role that information should play for management of emergencies (see the international symposium held in 1997 on this topic under the auspices of UNDHA - UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs -, now OCHA) (1).

Dissemination of timely and reliable information is seen as an essential tool "to identify resource mobilisation gaps, evaluate on-going operations and galvanise public awareness and concern".

Different initiatives have recently emerged in order to enlarge dissemination of strategic and field information : emergency-dedicated Internet servers (ex : DHA/OCHA) (2), periodic electronic reports (ex : weekly WFP emergency reports) (3), Email discussion groups (ex : NGONUT - NGO nutrition association network) (4), newspapers (ex : Field Exchange, from ENN) (5), databases available on CD-ROMs (ex : International Documentation Network on the Great African Lakes) (6), exhibitions (WorldAid 96 and 98, Geneva) (7).

If geopolitical information are now easily available and quite instantaneously shared, very few efforts have been devoted to co-ordinate the collection, analysis and dissemination of specific information concerning the food aspects of emergency aid. Some initiatives have nevertheless been taken to improve the quality and efficacy of relief foods and related services : use of HACCP methodology – Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points - for quality control of relief foods (ACF - Action Contre la Faim) (8) ; search for new "client-oriented" quality standards (IFRC World Disasters Report 1997 ; The Sphere Project) (9); edition of manuals of good practices (GASCA – Group for Assistance on Systems relating to Grain After Harvest) (10). Unfortunately, these are solitary initiatives which are not yet known and shared by the whole humanitarian community.

Why free access to information is a necessary prerequisite to food quality ?

In emergency situations, the " technical itinerary " of relief foods - procurement, transportation and delivery - follows one of the most complex existing logistic chains. This is due to an increasing number of implementing partners (governments and IGOs, international agencies, NGOs, private companies), with different but often disconnected or interfering status and tasks (procurement, processing, transportation, storage, analysis, monitoring and distribution of food items). It also arises from the impressive number of manipulations and delays that relief foods undergo, usually in remote areas and under the most severe conditions. We know by experience that, for food products, such a complexity induces a high risk of hazards and of non-quality, whenever product characteristics no longer fit "implied or expressed needs" (11). Astonishingly, international regulations which rule emergency aid are very discreet about the use of quality standards and tools, e.g. HACCP methodology (12). In the same way, traceability of relief foods is currently very difficult or even impossible, which may be highly dangerous for the health of the beneficiaries and for the efficacy of emergency actions.

We may observe that, going downstream this complex logistical chain, information level is gradually decreasing to a nearly zero level at the final stage (field stage). Due to the very sensitive nature of food products, this is susceptible to induce high risks of non-quality (contamination, non-conformity, food shortages or out-of-delay deliveries), affecting both the end-beneficiaries and the overall efficacy of the system.

Today, we do not have easy access to basic information about these products : precise origin and history (where does it come from ?), detailed nutritional composition, hygienic specifications, technological characteristics, logistical and commercial information (what is it ? how to use it efficiently and safely ?). All these figures are required, at one time or another, by field workers or to rule the framework agreements between the different contracting partners. Therefore, they must be easily and freely obtained at every step of the logistical chain. This is not presently the case, either because they are not available at all or because, if they are, they have been lost or hold back somewhere and are therefore progressively diluted, lost or retained.

If access to information is not a sufficient condition for food quality, it is a necessary prerequisite. It requires acute collaboration between the different partners, fast and reliable transmission of information on foods and related services, integrated management of information to allow its free and ubiquitous access. This quality-oriented approach is still totally unknown in most of Food Aid programs (Emergency or Development) but seems to be more and more applied in Health programs (The Sphere Project) (9), (The USAid-sponsored QAP project) (13).

How modern information technologies may improve efficacy and quality of relief foods and services ?

Along this complex logistic chain, the different partners must exchange precise and abundant data about food items and their handling : quantities and prices, delivery delays, product specifications, individual identification of on-going sets of goods (SSCC number of logistic units), localisation and history of food lots, identifications of the different partners involved in the logistic chain (transporters, store keepers, persons in charge of the final distribution), food certificates, preserving treatments, etc. Most of the information transfer is channelled through telephone, fax or mail. This is a slow, time-consuming, costly and unreliable process.

Today, modern technologies of electronic data interchange (EDI) are extensively used (over 500,000 companies world-wide) to secure and speed-up these transfers, especially for international exchange of goods. This process requires :

Equivalent technologies are routinely used by the different "integrators" (DHL, UPS, FEDEX) for express and world-wide delivery services : it is thus possible to track in real-time each parcel (where is it ? who is presently handling it ?) through Internet or Minitel . In a same way, UNCTAD promotes an integrated computerised project to track commodities in remote less-developped countries (16). Such an approach could be transferred with great profit to any emergency logistic system.

Some basics about exchange of computerised information in emergency situation may be found in the papers of R. Buddenberg (17) and M. Wood (18).

PFEDA : an integrated computerised database dedicated to relief foods and related services

PFEDA (Partners and Food in Emergency and Development Aid) is a computerised database developed at the University of Lille/IAAL (Institut Agricole et Alimentaire de Lille). It is an ACCESS database (Microsoft Office) and runs therefore under Windows environment (3.1 or higher). Its user-friendly interface allows an easy implementation by non-computerists. PFEDA aggregates different dynamic tables of data :

around 100 processed foods and 600 raw products are already listed, from bibliographic research and after consultation of different suppliers, procurement agencies and NGOs

around 2200 addresses are already listed.

These both databases are now implemented on Internet, for free and interactive consultation, downloading and updating by users.

Different tools have still to be added to the database, as for example an automated procedure of food ration optimisation, owing to pre-defined nutritional objectives, cost constraints and available products (19). The objective is for each field nutritionist to be able to tailor specific food rations that are adapted to each given situation (e.g. availability of relief foods or of indigenous staple foods at camp level).


Presently, this database is far from being exhaustive. Many organisations or companies that have been contacted are still reluctant to provide information. Lack of transparency is a clear impediment to efficient quality control and to its co-ordinated implementation by each partner.

We are convinced that the shortest and fastest way to change this, is to allow every field practitionist to access freely and easily to all the information he requires and to share it with the whole humanitarian community. In this view, Internet is a fantastic tool of information dissemination. The Web will soon reach the most remote areas thanks to the progress of satellite communications and to the exponential growth of Internet networking.

In a first step, it is now possible to quickly exchange data through electronic pipes (in between developped countries), satellite communications (from headquarters to overseas capitals) then through duplication of floppy disks (from capital to field sites).

In a second step, we may wish that the benefits drawn from such an experience will convince each one about the necessity - and feasibility ! - to collaborate to the progressive implementation of more integrated systems, aiming at replacing present monitoring/tracking systems by control and traceability systems. Moving from afterwards reports and eventual corrective actions to preventive strategies is the challenge.


Notes and Bibliography

(1) Role of Information in Humanitarian Co-ordination, Geneva, 8-9 October 1997

(2) Available on the Internet at DHA Home Page : ; daily updates about on-going Great Lakes crisis may be found at : ; detailed identification of information sources available on the Internet about the Great Lakes crisis + addresses of implementing partners may be asked to the author at :

(3) Available on the Internet at WFP Home Page : or by e-mail at : (fax +39 6 6513 2837)

(4) to register on the NGONUT list, contact Mike Golden at : or

(5) Field Exchange: Emergency Nutrition Network, Dept. of Community Health & General Practice, Trinity College, 199 Pearse Street, Dublin 2, Ireland, Tel : (353) 1 608 2676 / 1087; Fax : (353) 1 670 5384; Email :; Web site :

(6) More information about this project may be asked at : International Documentation Network on the Great Lakes Region of Africa, P.O. Box 136, CH 1211 Geneva 21, Switzerland, Tel: +41 22 906 59 05, Fax: +41 22 906 59 94,, E-mail:

(7) After these exhibitions, the WorlAid initiative will publish a directory of emergency aid ; contact : Andrew Howard, Winchester Group, Hadleigh Business Centre, 351 London Road, Hadleigh, Essex SS7 2BT, England. Tel: +44 (0) 1702 551556, Fax: +44 (0) 1702 551511;

(8) M. COCHERIL, 1996. Contrôle Qualité des denrées alimentaires dans l’humanitaire par la méthode HACCP – Application aux programmes de Action Contre la Faim dans le Caucase. Mémoire de DESS, USTL, Montpellier

(9) IFRC : + The Sphere project :

(10) Guidelines for the attention of donors, suppliers, sea transporters, store-keepers, handlers, transporters, distributors ; available at : Jacques Faure, CIRAD-CA, Laboratoire de Technologie des Céréales, 73 rue J-F Breton, BP 5035, 34032 Montpellier Cedex 1, France, Tel: +33 (0) 4 67 61 44 43, Fax : +33 (0) 4 67 61 44 44 or at : GASCA, Agro Business Park 2, Postbus 380, 6700 AJ Wageningen, The Netherlands, Tel: +31 317 467 100, Fax: +31 317 460 067

(11) Quality : " the totality of features and characteristics of a product or a service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs " (ISO/DIS 8402)

(12) In order to strengthen food security, EC regulations compel each food industry or service to implement mandatory in-plant monitoring of production/distribution through an internal quality control system. This system must follow the different principles used in HACCP methodology (93/43/EEC, june 14th 1993)

(13) QAP (Quality Assurance Project) for health systems :

(14) This international coding system complies with european (EAN) and american (UCC) standards. EAN/UCC numbering codes have two parts : a data field + a prefix (AI or Application Identifier) which allocates a specific meaning to the adjacent data field. Owing to the AI value, the number may encode a generic product, a logistic unit or a traded unit (with its corresponding logistical and trade measurements), a traceability system (batch/lot number, serial number, production date, max. durability date, transaction references, location of different parties : supplier, buyer, transporter), etc ; see : EAN Applications Identifiers and the UCC/EAN 128 symbology and Vital in communications : EAN location numbers, available at : EAN International, rue Royale 145, B-1000 Brussels, Belgium. Tel : +32 (0) 2 227 10 20, Fax: +32 (0) 2 227 10 21

(15) For implementation of Micrososft ACCESS databases on Internet (using "Snapshot technology" or other tools), read : M. Gill (1997). Use Microsoft Access 97 to share data on the web ; available at Microsoft Internet Home page : and M. Gill (1997). Use Microsoft Access 97 to access live data on the web ; available at Microsoft Internet Home page :

(16) ACIS (Advanced Cargo Information System) for management of transport routes, UNCTAD (

(17) R. Buddenberg. Computer networking and C3I systems for emergency services. US Navy Postgraduate School, Monterey ; available at NPS Internet home page : or through FTP protocol :, then go to directory : pub/sm/budden/IS4502/text_word

(18) M. Wood, 1996. Disasters communications, The Disaster Relief communications Foundation, UK ; available at DHA reliefweb server :

(19) Such a computerised optimisation has been developped by ORSTOM - Institut Français de Recherche Scientifique pour le Développement en Coopération - for formulation of weaning foods. This software (ALICOM) is now currently used by ORSTOM and GRET - Groupe de Recherche et d’Echanges Technologiques - in many development programs overseas. Informations are available at : Serge Trèche, ORSTOM, Laboratoire de Nutrition Tropicale, 911 Avenue Agropolis, BP 5045, 34032 Montepellier, France, Tel: +33 (0) 4 67 61 74 00, Fax: +33 (0) 4 67 54 78 00

(20) Dominique BOUNIE, IAAL, USTL Bâtiment C6, 59655 Villeneuve d'Ascq Cedex, France, Tel: +33 (0) 3 20 43 49 21, Fax: +33 (0) 3 20 43 44 86, Email: