updated 8/19/2011 2:02:28 PM ET 2011-08-19T18:02:28

Health officials confirmed Wednesday that deer droppings are the source of an Oregon E. coli outbreak linked to strawberries.

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Researchers at the Oregon Public Health Division found that six samples of deer feces matched the E. coli found in people who were infected. The outbreak killed one elderly woman and sickened 14 others from northwestern Oregon.

Jaquith Strawberry Farm produced the berries from the affected fields in Washington and Yamhill counties. They were sold to buyers who resold them at roadside stands and farmers markets.

It has been known since 1995 that deer can carry E. coli, but investigators don't know why it hasn't, until now, shown up in strawberries anywhere in the United States. E. coli has been linked to other crops, such as alfalfa sprouts, spinach and apple cider.

Researchers still aren't sure what made the outbreak occur in this particular time and place, said Dr. Katrina Hedberg, Oregon's state epidemiologist. It's unknown how many deer carry the harmful bacteria strain or whether this year's exceptionally cold and wet summer might have contributed to the feces coming in contact with the berries.

Hedberg said there's no reason to doubt the safety of Oregon strawberries, and the risk of E. coli contamination is still extremely low.

"This particular field was a problem, not all Oregon strawberries," Hedberg said, adding that the farmer didn't do anything wrong and was just a victim of bad luck.

Health officials have said that none of the affected berries are still on the market but some contaminated fruit could remain in people's freezers. They advise anyone with frozen strawberries from Jaquith to throw them away. Berries thoroughly cooked into jam are safe, officials say.

Hedberg said E. coli is commonly found in the gastrointestinal tract of many animals and is usually harmless. But the strain found in the strawberry fields is carried by some animals and produces toxins that can cause intestinal illness including severe cramps and bloody diarrhea.

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