UNICEF has rebuked Nestle officials over the "possibly harmful" way the company has chosen to interpret the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on marketing infant formula.

Nestle products, including coffee, chocolates and Stouffer's food, have been the target of a boycott by some 75 unions, church groups and health organizations. Nestle's and other companies' aggressive marketing practices have persuaded mothers to switch from breast to bottle feeding, creating a danger to the health of the infant and a high cost to the family, the boycotters say.

Last year, the United Nations approved a voluntary marketing code it intended for nations to adopt that would restrict the aggressive marketing of formula. The vote was 118 to 1, with the United States the lone dissenter.

The Nestle company is the world's largest manufacturer of infant formula, and the only one that has said it will try to comply with the voluntary rules for marketing infant formula. But the company has done so by issuing its own interpretation of the code, which critics have attacked.

Last month, James Grant, executive director of UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund), wrote to Nestle:

"It is with regret that I now inform you that my staff have conveyed to me their serious misgivings on Nestle's interpretations of significant aspects of the WHO infant formula marketing code, and on the possible harmful effect of its instructions to sales personnel in the implementation of the true spirit and intent of the code.

"I must ask you," Grant's letter continued, "and your colleagues in Nestle not to use the name of UNICEF nor mine in any way which suggests our endorsement of Nestle's instructions."

Rafael Pagan, president of Nestle's Coordination Center for Nutrition, wrote back to Grant, "I am shocked and dismayed at your letter of May 10 stating your staff's 'misgivings' with our recent policy initiatives to implement the WHO code."