THE ADMINISTRATION seems on the way to making a truly regrettable decision in the infant formula controversy. Evidently, it intends to vote in the World Health Assembly next Thursday against a "code" that would recommend to member nations that they restrict the marketing of breast-feeding substitutes. That the United States stands to become the single nation to oppose the propsed code is politically interesting but not the most important thing. The most important thing is that on a leading international public health issue -- one to which the health and even the life of millions of babies in poor countries depends -- health considerations have been set aside, and the American position has been worked out essentially on political and ideological grounds.

It helps to keep in mind that from the start of the administration's deliberations, there was never any serious question on the health merits. Formula has valid and valuable uses and could still be exported and sold under the proposed code. But in the typical Third World context, a mother chooses between feeding her baby clean breast milk or formula made with unclean water. Pro-code advocates argue that marketing techniques commonly used by the formula companies in the Third World too often propel healthy mothers with a good breast-milk supply into using formula, which is not as good as most mothers' milk and is of course more expensive to boot.

In the internal discussions, some officials were put off by the code's intrusion on free-enterprise and free-market principles and by the hostile anti-corporate tone of some code partisans. For foreign relations reasons among others, however, the United States did not want to veto. So it was decided to go to Geneva and simply abstain on the code, if the World Health people would limit the code to apply only to formula, and if the language were toned down. The World Health people agreed. It was then, when the stage had been set for an abstention, that the industry knocked and the White House intervened, making the American negotiators at Geneva look like monkeys by ordering up a veto.

No connection has been established between promotion of formula and a drop in breast-feeding, the industry argues, and the administration accepts this. But except to get mothers to switch, why would the companies pay to promote their product? The code infringes on commercial free speech and restrains trade, it is asserted.It does -- but such infringement in one degree or another, for the sake of the public interest, is an accepted practice all over the world, including in this country. The details of specific infringements for formula would be left to each country to work out according to its own procedures and laws. The fact is that none of the administration's objections have anything to do with the health of the babies. That is the sorry flaw in its handling of this issue.