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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Paddlefish Roe Fools Caviar Lovers

Imagine paying $75 for a 28-gram tin of Russian beluga caviar, fresh from the belly of a giant sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea. If someone substituted roe from the prosaic American paddlefish, a habitu? of the Mississippi River whose eggs go for around $10 for 28 grams - the equivalent of an ounce - you would know the difference, right?

Not necessarily, according to U.S. federal prosecutors in Baltimore.

On Thursday, a grand jury indicted three people associated with a large Maryland wholesaler on charges of substituting paddlefish and hackleback roe and other mislabeled fish eggs for authentic beluga and sevruga caviar for sale to customers like American Airlines and Fresh Fields, a natural-foods chain that advertises its premium quality.

The indictment accused the people of participating in an elaborate four-year conspiracy by falsifying documents to sell cheaper U.S. roe as Russian and Azeri caviar and smuggling authentic caviar into the country to avoid customs fees.

Those charged were Hossein Lolavar, 45, president and owner of U.S. Caviar & Caviar in Rockville, Maryland; his sales manager, Faye Briggs, 52; and Ken Noroozi, 41, a food importer and Lolavar's brother-in-law. Lolavar and Briggs face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of 22 charges, and Noroozi faces those penalties on each of six counts. All three were freed on bail after surrendering their passports in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Philip Kellogg, the lawyer for Lolavar and the company, which was also charged, said he could not comment on the substance of the accusations. But he did say: "When all the smoke clears, there are no victims. Nobody got sick. No customer has ever complained. No customer has ever sued them, saying they did not get proper goods."

Joe Stofer, seafood coordinator for Fresh Fields' mid-Atlantic region, said none of the chain's customers had complained about the roe or returned it. In fact, Stofer learned of the charges while attending a seafood tasting outside Philadelphia, where he said he preferred paddlefish roe to Russian sevruga caviar.

Prosecutors and officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which helped investigate the case, said there was a serious side to the profusion of black-market caviar.

In April 1998, sturgeons were listed as a protected species under a conservation treaty in an effort to stop the illegal flow and to monitor legitimate fishing.

The demand is greatest in the United States, the world's leading importer of caviar. More than 80 tons of caviar, with a retail value of $10 million, is imported legally each year. And uncounted additional amounts come in illegally, officials say.

Two men connected with a Stamford, Connecticut, company that distributed caviar to New York stores and restaurants were convicted in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn this month on charges of smuggling millions of dollars worth of caviar into the country, some of it in luggage on commercial flights from Poland to Kennedy International Airport.

In the Maryland case, prosecutors said the defendants imported 8,424 kilograms of caviar, which the wholesaler claimed to be Russian, from the United Arab Emirates in 1998 alone. Certificates attesting to the authenticity of the caviar were actually manufactured in the company's Rockville offices and stamped with a seal that appeared to be Russian, according to the charges.

Caviar seized from the company was subjected to DNA testing, which officials say can reveal whether a single grain is in fact the grade, provenance and variety identified on its label.

The indictment also charged Lolavar and Briggs with defrauding American Airlines by substituting paddlefish and hackleback for authentic Russian caviar and with selling previously frozen and mislabeled caviar to Fresh Fields and another grocery chain, Sutton Place Gourmet.