U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says he hasn’t had a chance to review the lawsuit a meat processor filed this week against a media giant and the former USDA employee who coined the phrase “pink slime.”

Beef Products, Inc. filed a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit against ABC News and others for “knowingly and intentionally” broadcasting “false” statements about the company’s “lean, finely- textured beef.”

“I’ve not had a chance to review anything about that lawsuit,” Vilsack says. “I certainly understand the frustration that the company had and, obviously, they made the decision (to sue) and I’m sure it’ll be vigorously defended and we’ll see what happens.”

BPI saw sales of its lean, finely textured beef plummet after a series of stories about the product aired earlier this year and the company closed three plants in May, including one in Waterloo where 220 workers lost their jobs. Vilsack was asked about BPI’s lawsuit during a news conference on Friday in Des Moines.

“We will continue to maintain the safety of that product,” Vilsack said. “We’ll continue to maintain, as we have, that it’s got less fat content and it’s less expensive and we’ll continue to provide it as an option for school districts in their purchasing decisions, but we obviously can’t compel or mandate people to buy a certain product, nor will grocers mandate or compel people to buy a particular product.”

School districts in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota are now the only schools in the country that serve ground beef with the company’s lean beef additive. A lawyer for BPI told reporters this week the company’s sales plummeted 80 percent after all the stories this spring about lean, finely-textured beef. The company’s lawsuit was filed in South Dakota, which has a “food disparagement” law on the books.

An ABC vice president said the network will “vigorously” contest the lawsuit.

A Pennsylvania company that made the same product filed for bankruptcy in April and is not a party to BPI’s lawsuit.