Health officials in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are still trying to determine the source of 12 confirmed cases of E. coli in the two provinces. Three people have been hospitalized in the latest outbreak.

“I’m always concerned, I don’t eat a lot of meat, so that lessens it, but sure, we need stronger rules,” says one Halifax resident.

“Not particularly concerned, I don’t eat much meat,” says another.

However, E. coli can be spread through many types of food, as well as water and at this point, health officials are still trying to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak.

“Some of the food in the food establishments where they've eaten are the same, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's the cause,” says Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health.

Seven of the confirmed cases of E. coli are in Nova Scotia. All seven of the people infected - ranging in age from 18 to 83 – fell ill between Dec. 23 and Dec. 26. Two people remain in hospital.

Strang and his staff are working closely with their counterparts in New Brunswick, where there have been another five confirmed cases of E. coli.

“Of the five cases, I understand that all five have visited an emergency room and one has been admitted to hospital,” says Dr. Eilish Cleary, New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health.  

The cases in New Brunswick are affecting adults between the ages of 17 to 39.

Officials have been unable to find a commonality, but say a case in Saint John and a case in Fredericton are linked.

Cleary says they have all eaten at various places - a number of restaurants have been named - but there are no patterns at this time.

“We have good E. coli in our gut, in the sense that they don't cause us any harm,” says Nikhil Thomas, a biomedical researcher at Dalhousie University.

However, Thomas says there are strains with toxins that make them dangerous to us.

“In particular, this 0157 has something called toxins and the toxin is particularly dangerous because it shuts down how our cells work,” says Thomas. “It prevents our intestinal cells from working and in a more severe situation, it affects how kidneys work.”

Strang says, since the cases reported in both provinces were close together and share similar characteristics, it would be unusual if they were not linked.

That is the theory health officials are working under as they attempt to track down the source.

“The wide geographic distribution and we know that none of these people were at a common event, they didn't know each other, so really, what it speaks to is it’s probably some kind of a food product that's been, you know, fairly widely distributed,” says Strang.

He says it is also a good time to remind everyone about the importance of hand washing as well as the proper preparation and handling of food.

With files from CTV Atlantic's Jacqueline Foster