Investigators never found the source of an E. coli outbreak that sickened 25 and killed one person last year. Now, a food-poisoning expert says the same E. coli strain is likely back - and more than 30 people are sick.

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Romaine lettuce

  • An E. coli outbreak has been linked to romaine lettuce, with the CDC encouraging people to stop eating romaine and throw away any that they have already purchased.
  • The strain of E. coli shares a genetic footprint with the bacteria linked to a past outbreak in 2017, which sickened at least 25 people across 15 states.
  • Investigators were unable to pinpoint the source of the 2017 outbreak, other than linking the E. coli outbreak to leafy greens.
  • Now, a food-poisoning expert says it is almost certain that the two outbreaks are linked - and that investigators will need to find the source this time around.

As another E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce sweeps the United States, experts are drawing connections to an unsolved investigation from 2017.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a food-safety alert warning people to stop eating romaine lettuce and to get rid of any they've purchased.

According to the CDC, at least 32 people in 11 states have reported E. coli infections linked to romaine lettuce starting last month. Thirteen people have been hospitalized.

Read more: The CDC tells people to stop eating romaine lettuce - again - after another E. coli outbreak sickens at least 32 people in 11 states

The outbreak is separate from another E. coli outbreak, also linked to romaine, that sickened more than 190 people earlier this year. However, that doesn't mean that the outbreak is coming out of thin air.

The strain of bacteria involved in this outbreak shares a genetic footprint with the E. coli bacteria tied to leafy greens in the US and romaine lettuce in Canada last year, according to the CDC.

In Canada, 42 cases of illness connected to the strain of E. coli were reported, including one death. In the case of the American leafy green outbreak, 25 people were sickened across 15 states, with illnesses starting in December 2017. One person died.

The source of the outbreak - such as a specific supplier or processing plant where the contamination occurred - was never discovered. While the Canadian outbreak during the same period was tied to romaine lettuce, the CDC was not even able to identify which specific leafy green was the source of the outbreak in the US.

Now, the unsolved case is likely back.

"It would be 90% certainty that wherever the lettuce was grown in 2017, it's the same place where this lettuce is grown," Bill Marler, a food-poisoning attorney, told Business Insider.

That place is likely going to be in California, either the Salinas Valley or the Central Valley, Marler says. With the illnesses linked to the romaine occurring in October, the contaminated lettuce is likely from California due to the American lettuce growing and harvesting schedule.

According to Marler, something - whether that be a water source or wild animals - has remained constant in the romaine lettuce supply chain since 2017. Now, the CDC and other investigators will likely have the opportunity to pinpoint exactly what the source was for both outbreaks.

"I think that it's likely they'll be able to figure this one out," Marler said.

"The sooner the better, just from a public health point of view," he continued.

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