Caviar claim smells fishy, grand jury says

Indictments accuse Md. company of selling lesser-quality roe

November 19, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A first-class American Airlines ticket is supposed to buy you a wide leather seat, free champagne and fine Russian caviar.

But the U.S. attorney's office said yesterday that some of what was billed as Caspian Sea caviar on recent flights was most likely fish eggs from two species of Mississippi River basin fish.

Prosecutors say it was part of a four-year conspiracy by a former Rockville company to sell American paddlefish and hackleback eggs as Russian caviar. It is also accused of smuggling sturgeon eggs from the United Arab Emirates into the United States and passing them off as Russian caviar.

Caviar, an expensive appetizer, comes from sturgeon -- a fish protected under international treaty. Ninety percent of the world's supply of caviar comes from the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan.

Yesterday, a federal grand jury in Greenbelt issued a 22-count indictment against the company, U.S. Caviar & Caviar Ltd., charging it with conspiracy, smuggling, wildlife violations, mail fraud and false statements in connection with an alleged scheme to defraud American Airlines, as well as Fresh Fields and Sutton Place Gourmet grocery stores.

Caviar Unlimited, also of Rockville, purchased U.S. Caviar & Caviar this year. Representatives from both companies did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

According to U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, the company imported about 18,500 pounds of caviar -- worth more than $6 million -- in 1998 from the United Arab Emirates.

Once in Maryland, the company put "Russian caviar" labels on the shipment.

The company also created Russian health certificates -- stamped with a false Russian seal and signed by a phony Russian health inspector, Battaglia said.

On April 30 and May 12, American Airlines received large shipments of the so-called Russian caviar, but federal investigators determined the caviar actually was American paddlefish and hackleback roe, according to the indictment, which was unsealed yesterday. Officials from American Airlines declined to comment.

Paddlefish and hackleback are cousins to the Caspian Sea sturgeon and can be found in the Tennessee and Mississippi River basins. Their roe tastes similar to Caspian Sea caviar but is of lesser quality, according to the indictment.

The American fish are protected under an endangered speciestreaty signed in 1998. A limited amount of the roe can be sold if identified as "American caviar," said Steven Minkkinen, director of the Maryland Fishery Service.

"I have heard there has been a black market in paddlefish roe in different parts of the world because of the price difference," Minkkinen said.

Battaglia would not speculate on how much of American Airlines caviar stock was imitation caviar, but said the amount was significant enough to warrant a criminal investigation.

The company also was accused of supplying caviar -- labeled Russian but believed to be from the United Arab Emirates -- that had been frozen and partially pasteurized to Fresh Fields and Sutton Place Gourmet stores this year.

Freezing caviar "damages it," said Joe Stofer, seafood coordinator for Fresh Fields, which has 12 stores in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, including one in Mount Washington.

"We were paying for Russian caviar," Stofer said. "The only thing you can call caviar comes from the Caspian Sea and its tributaries."

Yesterday, after hearing about the indictment, Sutton Place Gourmet pulled all the caviar supplied by both companies from its shelves, said Dave Swann, executive vice president of operations.

Fresh Fields, which still purchases caviar from Caviar Unlimited, said most people who eat caviar would not be able to differentiate between Russian caviar and lesser-quality roe.

Fresh Fields and Sutton Place Gourmet officials said they have received no customer complaints.

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