The alleged ruse seemed intended for the regular Joe who wouldn't know Russia's finest fish eggs from the middling Mississippi variety. Certainly not for connoisseurs of caviar.

But in some cases, it may have caught them both, according to prosecutors.

"We're not sure what we actually got," said a spokeswoman for Whole Foods Inc., one of a number of area stores alleged to have received low-grade American caviar instead of the authentic Russian beluga they thought they were getting.

"No one returned it. No one came back and said this isn't beluga," said the spokeswoman for Whole Foods, a national chain of 100 gourmet stores based in Rockville.

U.S. Caviar & Caviar, based in Rockville, was indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday on charges of duping Whole Foods and other high end gourmet shops and restaurants across the country by mislabeling American fish eggs as pricey Russian imports, the most cherished of caviars. The firm also is accused of ignoring import restrictions on Russian caviar and then selling it at

cut-rate prices, sometimes as low as $45 an ounce for beluga.

The 22-count indictment charged three people with plotting to sell American paddlefish and shovelnose sturgeon eggs from the Mississippi and Tennessee river valleys--both protected by federal endangered species law--in containers claiming to contain Russian fish eggs from the Caspian Sea.

The defendants are the company's president, Hossein Lolavar, 45, of Bethesda; a secretary, Faye Briggs, 52, of Silver Spring; and a leading supplier, Ken Norozzi, 41, also of Silver Spring. If convicted, Lolavar and Briggs could be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison and $250,000 in fines on each of the 22 counts. Norozzi could face the same penalties on six counts if convicted.

The company, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, drafted Russian health certificates with a fake seal of authenticity and ordered an employee to forge the signature of a Russian health inspector.

The indictment came at a time when retailers are eagerly anticipating the holiday season, with its promise of surging sales of champagne and caviar. At some stores, a 50-gram jar of top-of-the-line beluga caviar costs about $119, while a similar jar of oscetra caviar, also a Russian import, costs about $79, retailers said.

In contrast, a 50-gram jar of standard American caviar, paddlefish, for example, would cost about $59, retailers said.

The indictment covers 32,200 pounds of Russian sturgeon caviar, allegedly imported illegally, and 7,500 pounds of American paddlefish and 2,300 pounds of shovelnose mislabeled as Russian imports. The fish eggs were sold between February 1995 and May 1999.

It's unclear how many of the containers of fish eggs may still be on store shelves.

A spokeswoman for Whole Foods said the company stopped doing business with U.S. Caviar & Caviar after learning of the investigation in June.

Joe Stofer, seafood coordinator for the chain, said the company regularly sends officials on trips to taste food and assess how it's prepared before signing contracts for orders. Last year, for example, 15 seafood experts went to Iceland to taste salmon the company planned to import.

But caviar isn't a big part of the company's business, Stofer said: "To go to Russia to check out how caviar is processed wouldn't make sense."

Thomas H. Johnston, chairman of the Bethesda-based Sutton Place Gourmet stores, said that 30 minutes after he learned of the indictment Thursday, he ordered all caviar bought from the wholesaler pulled from his company's shelves.

It was the first he'd heard of any problems involving the Rockville company, Johnston said yesterday. He added that his customers would have known the difference between the creme de la creme of caviars and the more ordinary homegrown sort.

"They can tell the difference without any problems. Educated customers definitely can." he said.

"In many cases, they know more about food than we do."